3 Things CEOs Can Learn From Special Operations

Every employee, regardless of position within the company, serves as a leader in some capacity. However, being a leader while at the top of the organizational food chain is like receiving incoming enemy fire from multiple directions—you must be constantly vigilant about anything and everything going on around you because one false move and both you and the team are in trouble.

After spending 13 years in special operations, there are a few key behaviors I want to share that will optimize CEO performance both at the individual and organizational levels. Knowing how to direct oneself and one’s team amidst chaos requires a presence of mind, personal and situational awareness, and degree of humility that all serve as distinguishing factors between mediocrity and greatness.

Presence of Mind
In today’s constantly changing world, a CEO can’t afford not to have a backup plan. Unfortunately, many people like to just jump right into a decision after gleaming the facts that only float at the surface. In other words, their reflexes work all too well and they sometimes have a knee-jerk reaction that is, well, a bit too fast.

To remedy this, try mapping out both the likely and unlikely courses of action for each decision and then weighing the benefits and repercussions of each. For example, when we planned a mission, we needed to consider the likelihood of whether the enemy would fight, flee or freeze in place, and develop a plan to deal with each if/when the situation changed. Develop the presence of mind by asking yourself these questions:

What do I need to know?
Who is best equipped to provide that information?
What are the decisions that only I as CEO can make?
Having presence of mind means being able to apply the mental brakes and think clearly when you’re blood pressure starts raising. Just remember that no matter what the situation is, it can always be worse. This leads to…

Awareness
CEOs must (read must) have a clear understanding of their operating environment—the internal and external influences that both govern and guide decision-making. The days of hoarding information because “knowledge is power” are over.

Today, while holding knowledge is certainly powerful, sharing knowledge is the true source of power because you enable others to act; you empower them to execute according to the values, vision, and strategy that you, as CEO, has set forth for the company. Sharing key insights with others enables them to decide (and therefore act) with the appropriate context.

As a professional decision-maker, a CEO must be mindful of the source of information that guides his decision-making. Emotion and reason, for instance, are two defining elements in the human makeup, but when it comes to saying “yes” or “no,” “stop” or “go,” a leader must put one’s own self-interest aside and choose the path that serves the organization’s purpose. This is the very essence of being a professional: doing things right by doing the right things.

Humility
Nothing shapes a culture like humble leadership. If there’s one thing in this world that irks me more than anything, it’s somebody who thinks he’s better than you. Why? Because if, as a person and a professional, this self-proclaimed professional is so good at something then there is no need to tell anyone because they already know.

Like the first play in a football game, every play counts, and people notice your every move. Everything a CEO does, how he comports himself, the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) that he exudes, the words he chooses and how he’s dressed, all send both direct and indirect messages to the rest of the organization that tell them what is “right.”

Practice your humility. To be humble is to cede mental ground, to acknowledge that better ideas exist (and that they may not come from you) and to embrace newness as an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than stifle and shrivel away. In other words, humility requires us all to “duck” at some point in order to allow better decisions to be made.

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