Special Operations Leadership Principles

As we navigate through these unprecedented times, I have been inspired by individuals who show standout leadership qualities in the face of this unique challenge. As I try to strengthen my own leadership abilities, I turned to a trusted advisor of mine for some insight from his military career and to learn what traits a great leader must possess during times of war. For close to 40 minutes, retired Naval Officer Coleman Ruiz shared with me what he had learned over his 13 years as an active duty U.S. Navy Seal, including leadership lessons acquired on the battlefield.

I recorded our interview and have shared it on my website (LINK); in case you are tight on time here is a brief recap of our conversation.

Background on Coleman Ruiz:

He entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993 and spent 13 years on active duty serving as a U.S. Naval Officer in the Naval Special Warfare community. He was stationed overseas during six combat deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Coleman was a training officer at both basic and advanced NAVAL Special Warfare training schools where he led the training and development of approximately 800 new Seals. 

Currently, he is a contributor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania—Wharton School at the Mission Critical Team Institute; Board Member at Tip of the Spear (a veteran-focused nonprofit); and a member of the Station Foundation’s veteran transition programs.

Highlights from our conversation:

  • Before someone can be a great leader, they must first learn to be a great follower.

  • The most powerful part of a team’s cohesion isn’t the single leader riding in on the white horse, rather it’s the team rowing together in the same direction.

  • Every business school or college athletic program preaches leadership as they are “Building the Leaders of Tomorrow” but you don’t want a basketball team full of leaders, you want a group filled with terrific teammates that then organically build the leadership muscle. Coleman expands on this idea here: (LINK).

  • An exceptional leader takes reasonability for everything that happens or fails to happen to teammates under their supervision.

  • When your son/daughter crashes their car, whose fault is it? It’s your son/daughter’s fault because they were behind the wheel, but it is your responsibility as their parent because you trained them, you insured them, and you set the rules of what’s allowed. They are not an independent operator and still sit under the chain of command (their parents). This same premise applies to the individuals under your command. A good leader takes responsibility for what happens and fails to happen under their guidance.

  • If a leader understands that she/he is still responsible even when they are not at fault it makes them look at the parameters put in place with greater scrutiny and evaluate systems.

Lessons from Deployment:

  • The current COVID crisis is similar to deployment in many ways. Coleman recently wrote a two-part article about this topic. Part 1 (LINK) Part 2 (LINK)

  • Understanding the “Commander’s Intent” is paramount for a team that aligns with the greater objective. In order for a team to understand this intent they need three things from their leader:

1 – Desired End State – Be mindful to set a broad context

2  – Key Tasks – Set of priorities stating what success looks like

3 – DON’T DO – Short list of things not to do

  • Remote coordination is key to managing a distributed workforce. By utilizing VTC (Video Teleconference), Coleman was able to stay connected with higher headquarters when overseas. This was a priority of General Stann McChrystal who talks about the benefits in this video: (LINK)

Advice for Leaders:

  • There is no way to make this situation comfortable, so get past that idea quickly and move on to the next steps…. start executing.

  • You need to be more horizontally connected and aware than ever. Once things get back to normal and our business accelerates, each division is going to have progressed at different rates; therefore, acceleration could be painful for leaders who aren’t horizontally connected throughout the business.

  • Focus on where your stakeholders’ (partners, customers, vendors) business is headed in six months because that is going to dictate where your businesses has the ability to go as well.

Book Recommendation:

  • Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales (LINK)

Coleman has been a trusted advisor of mine for the last two years and his coaching continues to be invaluable. I hope you watch our interview in its entirety (LINK) and find value in the stories that are shared.


To learn more about Coleman Ruiz please visit his website www.colemanruiz.com and subscribe to his newsletter.

Until next time,