Retired US Navy admiral shares leadership lesson from SEAL training

Retired US Navy Admiral William McRaven had an esteemed 37-year military career — which included leading the assassination of Osama bin Laden — but it was a night from Navy SEAL training’s Hell Week that taught him the power of a leader.

In 2014, McRaven gave the commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin, breaking down the 10 biggest lessons he learned in the six months of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs (BUD/S) training in his early 20s, and how they were universally applicable.

Now the chancellor of the University of Texas system, McRaven has released “Make Your Bed,” a short book expanding upon these principles he spoke about a few years ago.

U.S. Navy Adm. William H. McRaven makes remarks during his retirement ceremony. | DoD photo by SSG Sean K. Harp

In it, he recounts his night in the Tijuana mud flats, where he and his fellow SEAL candidates had virtually every inch of their bodies covered in mud, the experience made worse by a brutally cold night.

Hell Week comes during week three of the six month-long BUD/S training, and is meant to weed out early the candidates who are not ready to become SEALs. According to SOFREP, only about 25% of candidates make it through the week’s intense trials of physical and mental endurance.

One of the trials involves various exercises in expanses of cold, neck-high, clay-like mud.

As McRaven remembers, on this particular day, he and his fellow candidates had spent hours racing each other in boats, paddling through the mud. Now they were standing in it during a suddenly chilling night. To make it worse, it was only the halfway mark of Hell Week. Doubt was setting in among all the young men.

“Shaking uncontrollably, with hands and feet swollen from nonstop use and skin so tender that even the slightest movement brought discomfort, our hope for completing the training was fading fast,” McRaven writes.

From the edge of the flats, an instructor with a bullhorn tried to lure the candidates to comfort. The instructors, he said, had a fire going and had plenty of hot soup and coffee to share. Furthermore, if just five of the candidates quit, the rest of the guys would be given a break. Taking this offer meant ending your SEAL training.

BUD/S trainees covered in mud during Hell Week.

BUD/S trainees covered in mud during Hell Week. | Department of Defense photo

A student next to McRaven started walking through the mud toward the instructor. McRaven remembers the instructor smiling. “He knew that once one man quit, others would follow,” McRaven writes.

Then one of the candidates started singing. It was raspy and out of tune. Even though it sounded terrible, other students soon joined him, including the one who was on the verge of quitting.

The instructor began yelling at them, demanding that they stop. “With each threat from the instructor, the voices got louder, the class got stronger, and the will to continue on in the face of adversity became unbreakable,” McRaven writes. He remembers that behind the facade of anger, he could see the instructor smiling at the turn of events.

McRaven realized that all it took was one person to unite the entire group, when many of them were on the verge of abandoning their goal.

Interestingly, former Navy SEAL platoon commander Leif Babin writes in his book “Extreme Ownership,” that he learned a similar lesson when he was one of the Hell Week instructors. When the instructors switched the leaders of the best and worst performing boat race teams, they were amazed to see that the formerly worst team rose to the top under new leadership, while the formerly best team suddenly dropped in the rankings under its new poor leader. It was proof to Babin that, “There are no bad teams — only bad leaders.” One exceptional person can change the entire fate of a group.

The night in the mudflats stuck with McRaven during his maturation as an exceptional leader, one who would rise to the highest rank in the Navy, lead all of America’s special operations, and oversee the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

“If that one person could sing while neck deep in mud, then so could we,” McRaven writes. “If that one person could endure the freezing cold, then so could we. If that one person could hold on, then so could we.”

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