Leadership and Team Building Lessons I Learned from Navy SEALs


Leadership and Team Building Lessons I Learned from Navy SEALs

Leadership and Team Building Lessons I Learned from Navy SEALs

December 14, 2022
by Scott R. Olinski

On a seemingly normal summer day at a sports facility in Ohio, I embarked upon a 26-hour odyssey focused on team building and leadership that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. This leadership training “experience” was led by two highly trained former Navy SEALS, who showed us what it means to work well under pressure individually, and more importantly, as a team.

When one of our firm’s partners asked if I’d like to attend the training, I jumped at the opportunity and was lucky enough to snag the last spot on the fifteen-person roster.

Mid-day on a Tuesday afternoon, I met fourteen other individuals who had come from all over the United States. Besides being told to “keep an open mind” we were not given much insight into what we’d be doing, so everyone was understandably a bit anxious. We went straight to the pool for our first session and were literally thrown into the deep end.

The Great Equalizer

We were divided into groups, and two leaders were selected from the group at random. After doing some push-ups on the side of the pool, we were given our first task. On the surface it seemed simple: our team had to cross the short length of the pool together, with everyone passing under the lane lines at the same time. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

A few folks struggled and one panicked and needed help. We learned that water is a great equalizer –no matter how strong or tough you are, it can trip you up if you’re not mentally focused. We had to communicate as a team. If you rushed, some of your team might panic in the water. We had to all slow down and focus.

By having us swim 25 yards within the first 15 minutes of arriving, a valuable lesson was imprinted. If you lose focus, you’re more apt to panic. If you worry about things outside of your control, you may panic. So, when you can’t change the situation, focus on the things you CAN control.

While our crossing the pool is in no way comparable to what a Navy SEAL does (and tasks were tailored to participants not being in tip-top shape), it used the same physical-experience teaching approach to drive home the point.

We weren’t done in the pool. The next task was to do wall-sits while holding a medicine ball out in front of yourself. The chosen team leader had to count down and then tell the team to stand up together. The second time through, our leader forgot the countdown.

This resulted in the team having to do a longer wall-sit. The lesson here was that as a leader you are a responsible for the whole team, and your mistakes can impact the team. After just two activities we came to realize that if the team completed the task objective as instructed, all was well.

If not, there was some sort of recourse. Personally, watching how the Navy SEALS communicated with us and were able to get 15 individuals to quickly come together as a team, made a profound impression.

Dealing with Discomfort

Next, we moved onto a track where we were divided into teams of five. You may be familiar with training Navy SEALS do while carrying logs to encourage teamwork. We were tasked with transporting 10-15-foot-long PVC pipes filled with water (essentially simulated logs) that had to easily weigh 200 lbs.

The trick was to keep the pipe balanced; if the water shifted, it would become too heavy for one person. The physical element really brought home the importance of working together and understanding the toll your actions can have on others.

There were more team exercises with the “logs” which involved the team doing squats and sit-ups in tandem, as directed by the team leader. From this we learned that even if you are a leader, you need to be just as much a part of the team as everyone else –on a level playing field.

Have you ever seen images of SEALS training on beaches covered in sand and grit? We got a taste of that, too. They sprayed down the sand pit on the track and we rolled around until covered, which they called “being a sugar cookie.” More water, more rolling — and of course some team tasks to do while covered in sand. When we were asked, “who is uncomfortable?” the answer was unanimous.

We discussed learning to live with being uncomfortable. It all comes back to mental discipline. There will always be things that make you uncomfortable in both your work and personal life. Block it out. Focus on what you can control.

After every activity, we discussed what we got out of it and how the lessons could be transitioned to the real world. When we looked back at each task, we reviewed what worked, what didn’t, and what could have been done better. Leaders functioned as team members, and the team, as a whole, was responsible for the success of the task.

We did have some “down” time too and heard two phenomenal speakers: the first was an Olympic Gold Medalist who overcame challenges with pure determination, and the second speaker was an adaptive sports athlete who found a new lease on life after losing a limb.

Both stories were inspirational and made me think about how we sometimes take things for granted. Their stories illustrated that even when things are hard or challenging, the perspective in which you frame things is important.

This was an experience like nothing I’d ever gone through before. We were privileged to learn valuable team-building and personal lessons from two exceptional Navy SEAL commanders who had a combined 50+ years of experience. The insights they shared brought to life the importance of teamwork in way no “conference room” training ever could.

Scott Olinski, CPA, has been with Thornhill since 2019, where he and his team provide tax compliance and planning guidance and services.


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