School Leadership & Navy SEALs

School Leadership & Navy SEALs


Bill Sommers & Gary Denham


These notes are from a learning conversation between Bill Sommers, a high school principal and Gary Denham, retired Navy SEAL & former 8th grade history teacher

Question: What lessons can a principal learn from a Navy SEAL and a SEAL from a principal?

Through a Zoom meeting, Bill and Gary discussed this question, and some others, about being a principal, an educator and a SEAL, and if they share some attributes and desires for excellence in themselves and others.

The driving goals for a Navy SEAL is Mission First, Teammate Second, I am Third. Survival takes care of itself in how we prepare for work. A principal’s mission is, take care of your teachers and your teachers will take care of your students. Or, Mission First, Teammate Second, I am Third.

The “Goal” is to complete the mission. In education isn’t it preparing young people for life after high school? How one does that day in and day out is the “art” of teaching.

We are both concerned with the outcomes – in sports it is the “Big ‘W’” or win.

Gary mentioned that SEALs are Outcome Focused but Process Driven. Bill: “Educators must focus on the outcome. Probably not as much on content and knowledge as ‘back in the day.’” Drive the process that is transferable to many situations. Creativity is the lifeblood of businesses these days. It is not as much of ‘what you know’ as ‘what can you do?’

There is not any organization that is more outcomes focused than SEALs… Period. Now, we are not focused about the “W” or win or outcome. We focus on our process to get there. Why? Because the enemy has a ‘say so.’ We train and work harder than anyone else. We want to win, because if we don’t, the National mission doesn’t get completed or, my friend comes home in a body-bag. We control the controllables and the process to make and train a SEAL for the preparation of our job. Mission First, Teammates Second, I am Third.

John Carse (1986) wrote a book titled, Finite and Infinite Games; The goal of a finite game is to win. When someone wins, the game is over. Think of Monopoly, Gin Rummy, Football or Tiddlywinks (look this up!). The goal of an infinite game is to keep the game going. On a SEAL mission, hopefully there is an end!

If learning is the vehicle of achieving the goal of school, playing an infinite game means continued learning for a lifetime, continuing the learning conversations that expands our repertoire, and playing well with others. A goal we both aim for, is creating Lifetime learners. This is the basis of humility. The idea that you never arrive, that one can always improve on their performance. As UCLA’s John Wooden said, “Learning starts after you know everything.”

Learning, by definition, is Change:

  • Change of Mind – Intellect
  • Change of Heart – Emotion
  • Change of Will – Consciousness

We discussed working in a team:

In Chief Joy Officer, Richard Sheridan says, to work at Menlo, the first criteria is, ‘to play well with others.’ Gary pointed out that one of the SEAL’s core attributes is Teamability, ‘working well with others and supporting one another’ and/or ‘take care of the guy or girl next to you.’ We aren’t called the SEAL Teams for nothing.

The African Proverb seems to fit.  “If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.” In addition, principals must lead and be part of the team that keeps survival foremost in the organization.
It goes back to being mission focused. One must put aside their petty differences to achieve the goal. Mission First, Teammate Second, I am Third.

Training and VUCA:

We ALL live in a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA). How do you complete the task at hand (Mission)? Focus on the mission.

When Bill read a book about the Bin Laden operation, one of the SEALs on the mission said they had practiced what happens if a helicopter is inoperable. The helicopter did crash, and the unit responded seamlessly. Have a ‘Bump-Plan.’ Gary explained that when working with helicopters, sometimes there is a need to get on another aircraft, hence, we “bump” to another aircraft without hesitation. Think if you wanted to take your class on a field trip to a natural history museum and when you arrived there, it was unexpectedly closed. If you had Bump Plan, you could seamlessly shift to the art museum and carry on with your adventure. SEALs train for uncertainty, ALWAYS. They train for disturbances/problems… folks who don’t, when problems arise, they are disturbed but because we specifically train for them, when they come (and they will) it does not disturb us.

Gary said SEALs practice and practice multiple ways to respond when things don’t go as planned. Sounds like life to me. A sense of humor helps in almost all circumstances.

There are always bumps in the road, things that don’t work out. What is plan “B?” Two things come to mind. One is Mary Catherine Bateson said, “life is improvisation.” I think we can all resonate with that. Bill has taken Improv Classes from Stevie Ray in Minnesota for years and a  suggestion for aspiring leaders is to take an Improv Class.

In addition, having more than one plan affords one more options and flexibility in any situation. So, develop a plan “B, C and D.”

Another concept that really hit home was to Overtrain to Automaticity.  The more basic knowledge and skills a leader has on automatic, the more memory and executive functions can be focused on the issue at hand. Automaticity has been a cornerstone of how the brain functions to help us get more done (why we develop good habits and systems). It helps us function in daily life, so we don’t have to reconstruct knowledge every time. It is the difference between having one year of experience twenty-five times and twenty-five years of experience or in martial arts, doing 1,000 moves once, or doing one move 1,000 times.

The Four Stages of Learning:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Competence
  • Unconscious Competence

We want our men and women to operate using their memories (unconscious competence), not there thinking. Better said, I don’t want my unit rising to the occasion, I want them to fall back on training.

Remember Yogi Berra? His quote came up. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and, no matter how over it looks. Until the event is complete the issue is not over. Even when it is over, there are always unintended consequences or system outcomes that may or may not be helpful.

Marshall Goldsmith (2007) coined the term FeedForward. In life there are always ‘sunk costs.’ Things we cannot change. Marshall often says focus on ‘what next?’ What will you do moving forward?


Leadership is easy when things are going well. Gary mentioned Leadership in tough circumstances.  Another quote that comes to mind is “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” This is attributed to John Shedd. Leadership involves leading between ideas, changes in the environment, and new eras. Leadership is risk and the best leaders can paint a vision and implement a plan to get the best outcome. Leadership is Influence. How you do that is the “art” part of leadership. It is that invisible force in one’s personality that causes others to act.

The best leaders are Humble Warriors. If ego and control are the tenets of leaders, they may get some outcomes but usually is short term and they lose people in the process. Trust and control are the opposites that must remain in balance. In high control organizations, control works with objects, not so well with people. In high-risk occupations safety is a main goal… think passenger airlines. High trust can release creativity like Pixar, Apple and in the SEAL ethos it is a tenet. Leaders must weigh and balance trust and control, creativity and procedures.

When teaching potential leaders Bill says the leader must be able to say two things with total authenticity:

  1. Saying, “I’m sorry.” You will mess up, make amends, take responsibility and be
    Great leaders take on more blame when things go wrong, and conversely, take less credit when things go right.
  2. “I don’t know.” Credibility suffers when leader try to blow hot air up the pant leg. Find out what you don’t know from the experts. ASK questions. It isn’t a “sin” to not know, but it is pretend to. Ask.

Gary ended our conversation with a quote from Jigoro Kano, The Father of Modern Judo:

His death bed wish was, “Bury me in my white belt.” He came into this world first as a learner, now he was the teacher/the master and he wanted to enter into the next world as a learner… so bury me in my white belt.

He had the:
Strength to listen.

Passion to get better.

Humility to lean.


Carse, John.  (1986).   Finite and infinite games.  New York: Ballantine Books.

Goldsmith, Marshall. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there.  New York: Hyperion

Sheridan, Richard. (2018). Chief Joy Officer.  New York: Portfolio/Penguin




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