I just finished reading No Easy Day which is the autobiography of a SeAL who was part of the mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. I should have read this a few years ago when it came out. This might be one of the best books I’ve ever read. Ok I listened to it. 6 disks that kept me engrossed the whole time. I picked it up last Thursday and finished it on Sunday. While this is a great military story with some nice inside baseball details, I think there are some really good life and business lessons in there too.
A few things I didn’t know: SeAL Team 6 refer to themselves as “DEVGRU” which is a shortened version of the long name of United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group. ST6 was named artificially higher than the number of teams in existence (2) at the time to make the Soviets think we had more teams than there actually were. SeALs apply to DEVGRU and if selected go through an additional 9 month program beyond BUD/S called “Green Team”.
The author talks a lot about “the good-idea fairy” where planners and analysts swoop in late in a process with good ideas about how the mission should be executed. He details suggestions to bring a bull horn to the raid for crowd control or the need to carry a flashing police light so they can push one of the Bin Laden cars out into the street and put this light on it so neighbors think it is a police action. The good idea fairy is everywhere in business. Whenever you vet a plan, someone inevitably tries to add value after the fact. While reviews are a useful part of planning, I doubt anyone hasn’t seen it go too far when decision makers lack the courage to act and make a call.
There is a great description of different approaches to a mission. Sometimes you “fly to the X” and come in loud and powerful with a lot of speed. You have no element of surprise when you come in on a helicopter. This is juxtaposed to “flying to the Y” where you land far away in a quiet place and approach the X with stealth: Thus keeping the element of surprise. How often is it smarter to fly to the Y and move to the X with diligence and care?
I particularly like a story of the Green Team PT test. The author was coming in from a deployment in the field and was not in very good shape. While SeALs are expected to far surpass the minimum standards, he barely passed. At his interview he took responsibility and explained that this will never happen again. I like the fact that every test, every experience is a training moment and something can be learned. Even in the middle of on-going operations, you have to keep your fundamentals solid, sharp and well exercised.
Without doubt my favorite part of the book was the ramp up to the Bin Laden raid. I didn’t know this, but a single squad was not chosen for the mission. Instead, guys were picked from all the squads. As described it was an almost “Dream Team” of operators who were all at the senior level. After they all met each other and received the mission briefing, the author asked, “Who’s gonna carry the sledge?” It was always the new guy’s job to carry the sledgehammer. He talks about how any of the squads could have carried out the mission, there was nothing complex or special about it. But to prove to Washington that they could do the mission, they had to rehearse over and over on a model that everyone agreed had an amazing level of detail.
When you remember that our Commander in Chief is a basketball player, this totally makes sense. You can throw any 5 stars on a basketball team and they can be a ‘dream team’ in minutes. There is no ‘team’ in basketball, there are 5 guys with giant egos pounding their chests in a completely anti-cathartic rumble of scoring that repeats itself over 100 times in a 60 minute game. Who can’t picture this guy saying “I want the best of the best before I approve this mission.” It seems to be how the White House operates too; there is no team, there is no need to gel as a unit the way football, soccer and hockey players do. It’s like the football analogy where quarterback and receivers could look at each other and get on the same page before a play starts. We hear this described as ‘timing’ from getting reps in practice. Similarly, one part of the book describes how there is no secret Navy SeAL hand signal language like you see in the movies. They train together and are so prepared, that they know what other team members are going to do before they do it. A squeeze on the shoulder from the guy in the back is all that is needed before you clear a room.
This last part is a great life lesson. SeALs don’t really plan a mission with a lot of detail because no plan survives first contact with the enemy (Steve Blank says that no business plan survives first contact with customers). So what you do is you prepare and train so that you have seen and experienced so many different contingencies in the past that reacting to something new feels natural and rehearsed. Experience doesn’t have to be exactly relevant to the situation at hand. Rather, experience prepares you for situations that have no preset plans. Moving decisively while experiencing something for the first time, is leadership. Good thing the leader of the most powerful military and largest economy in the world has multiple years of experience as a community organizer. That’s normally the FNG you make carry the sledge.