History is filled with great speeches, delivered precisely by the best orators of their time.
They are important to study and learn; key insights to moving people in a direction that you desire. And moving people to do things you want them to do is an integral characteristic of leadership. Without that ability, you are just someone with a name and position.
Navy Seal and former commander of the US Navy Seal team that captured Osama bin Laden gave a speech to the 2014 graduating class of the University of Texas at Austin (his alma mater).
The speech wasn’t your normal run of the mill commencement address. He didn’t talk about getting a good job or being a steward for whatever blah blah blah. He gave 10 actionable lessons that if applied, can be used to change the world…
10 lessons every leader can use to change the world by Admiral William H. McRaven
1. Start off each day by making your bed. It’s a small, mundane task but it teaches discipline and attention to detail. Action promotes action and this simple daily task will encourage you to keep getting things done. McRaven also talks about the possibilities of having a bad day, which ofcourse happens to all us at some point. Coming home to a perfectly made bed brings encouragement that the next day will be better.
“If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”
2. Find someone to help you paddle. If you’re going to change the world, you are going to need some help. McRaven draws a paralel to a boat crew and paddling through the rough San Diego surf during SEAL training. The example is specific but its application is universal. If you’re just starting off, you will want to seek out a mentor and you will want to surround yourself with like minded individuals. These influences will help you paddle faster and in the right direction. Less worthy boat mates will just make you sink. Fast.
As the old adage suggests, Iron Sharpens Iron.
3. Measure a person by the size of their heart, not by the size of their flippers. Sometimes we can make judgement calls about a person’s ability based on what we see. It’s a natural thing to do and is often a fallacy of recruitment and job interviews. We sometimes care too much about the tangibles. McRaven tells a story of the best performing boat crew of his SEAL class, the team that outswam and outran everyone else. Their common trait: they were the team of little guys, all standing at or below five foot five.
“SEAL Training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and no your social status.”
4. Get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward. At SEAL training, after failing a uniform inspection (everyone fails), you would have to run down to the beach and roll around in the sand until every part of your body was covered. Essentially, you would do this until you looked like a sugar cookie. As you can imagine, being cold, wet, and sandy for an entire day was miserable; the underlying lesson was in resilience. No matter how hard you tried to get your uniform right, you were going to fail and you were going to spend the day being miserable.
Sometimes you can work on perfecting every intricate detail and still come up short in the end. That is just the way life is. Learn to get over it and keep moving forward.
5. Don’t be afraid of the “circuses.” At SEAL training, failing to meet time standards during endurance tests meant you had to join the “circus.” These were the not-so-fun variety of circuses that consisted of additional exercises, with each session lasting up to two hours. These intense sessions had one distinct purpose: wear you down, break your spirit, and force you to quit. Yet, those that endured the circuses and even embraced its crucible came out stronger over time. Each two hour interval of intense physical pain built physical resiliency, which built mental fortitude.
You will fail and fail often, so don’t be afraid of the circus; it may even make you stronger.
6. Sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head-first. There was an obstacle that all SEAL trainees at do at least twice a week that consisted of sliding down a rope from a three story structure. One candidate risked failure and injury to slide down the rope in an unconventional way; head first. Although different and wrought with risk, it was immensely faster than the traditional method and enabled that candidate to break the record time for the course. It also reset the standards for that obstacle for all future SEAL classes. Because of that one SEAL candidate, all future classes would be different. It was a game changer but it was also unconventional and risky. Was it worth the risk? Its over thirty years later and we are still talking about it. So yes, it was worth it.
“The record seemed unbeatable until one day a student decided to go down the side for life- head first.”
7. Don’t back down from the sharks. SEALs have to literally swim for several miles at night in shark infested waters. If they are to encounter a shark, they are instructed to face it head on. Do not swim away and do not act afraid. Instead summon up all your strength and punch it right in the snout. The instructions were literal, what to do if a shark attacks you. The lesson was not; there are a lot of sharks in the world, if you hope to succeed, you will have to face them head on, unafraid.
“They are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim, you will have to deal with them.”
8. Be your very best in the darkest moment. SEALs train to swim underwater for several miles at time. When doing this, there is always a sliver of light that seeps through the surrounding ocean. Just enough comforting light to know that there is a way out of the darkness of the ocean depths. However, one particular exercise requires candidates to swim underneath a ship (the keel) and straight into an all-encompassing darkness. No light whatsoever. During this one defining moment, candidates must be their calmest, most composed selves. Every ounce of inner strength must be summoned forward.
“Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission, is the time when you must be calm, composed- when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.”
9. Start singing when your up to your neck in mud. This piece of advice from McRaven is built on the power of hope. He uses another SEAL crucible, this time they were covered, up to their necks, in the most despicable type of mud you can imagine. A freezing type of mud that was complete in its presence. The only thing that kept the candidates from quitting was the power of hope– which came to fruition as they all sang together sorely out of tune. Despite threats from their instructors, the unity of the song gave them a universal sense of hope.
“And somehow- the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away”
10. Don’t ever, ever ring the bell. Quitting while at SEAL training is quite easy. Most people quit and no one will ever hold it against you if you chose to do so. All you have to do is walk up to a bell and ring it. Moments later you are outprocessed, sleeping in a warm bunk, well fed, and ofcourse, immensely dissastissfied. McRaven’s final message is perhaps his most important one for anyone looking to make a difference- don’t ever quit.
No matter what the circumstances. No matter what the odds or how bleak it all may seem. If you want to change the world, don’t ever ring the bell.
The 10 lessons are universal in its truths and if applied everyday, will mold its bearer into one tough and persistent ass kicker. Not quite a Navy SEAL but still a much better person. A more resilient, sugar cookie looking, disciplined winner.
McRaven is a doer and not just sayer. He is a go-getter and not a no-getter. He walks the talk, so when he talks, you should take note. This is the full speech.
In Pursuit of Greatness