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9 Principles That Product Managers Can Learn From Navy SEALS

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I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Life Lessons from Navy SEAL Training*.” The article is based upon a commencement speech given by Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. In the article the Admiral discusses the rigors of SEAL training used to filter out those who are weak of mind and body before they become a Navy SEAL.

But the story doesn’t end there, in fact, that is the beginning. The admiral goes on to point out that this rigorous training seeks to elevate students able to lead in an environment of constant change, stress, chaos, failure, and hardship. As I read this part of the article I could see parallels to the role of a product manager.

Product managers don’t go through formal training per se but we do undergo a “trial by fire.” So I found it helpful to reflect on the life lessons that Admiral McRaven conveyed as many are applicable to product management practitioners. Here are 9 of his principles.

If you want to change the world (and what product manager doesn’t?)…

  1. Start by making your bed! The underlying principle is if you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. Start your day with a small accomplishment and use that momentum to undertake bigger things.
  2. Find someone to help you paddle! You can’t change the world alone – you will need some help. Product managers can’t succeed alone either we need to rely upon our team mates to succeed.
  3. Measure people by the size of their heart! SEAL training is a great equalizer – the only thing that matters is the size of your heart. I have learned over the years that sometime the best product manager is the one you least expect – be open to all possibilities.
  4. Keep moving forward! Sometimes no matter how well you prepare, how well you perform, things aren’t always going to go your way. It is just part of life. What matters is to keep moving forward.
  5. Don’t be afraid of circuses! Circuses, in SEAL terminology, are exercises meant to wear you down and test your will. Those that persevere through these grueling exercises did so by building inner strength and physical resilience. Life, as a product manager, is filled with circuses. You may fail and fail often. It can be painful and discouraging. Remember, you only truly fail when you stop trying.
  6. Sometimes you have to slide down an obstacle head first! Adm. McRaven relates the story about a particular obstacle that SEALS face. The fastest record for clearing the course had stood since at least 1977 – that is until one student decided to take a tremendous risk and tackle the obstacle by going head first. This disruptive approach set a new record. As a product manager don’t hesitate to think outside the box and be disruptive – sometimes it is the only way to change the game.
  7. Be the very best at your darkest moment! Navy SEALS know that they will face dark moments, true tests. It is the time when you must remain calm and composed, when all of your tactical skills and inner strength must be brought to bear. Product managers can face moments of intense pressure, particularly making difficult decisions. Who wants to follow a product manager that panics? Staying calm in the face of adversity is an under-appreciated aspect of the best product managers.
  8. Don’t back down from sharks! SEALS train in shark populated waters and are taught that if a shark circles your position you must stand your ground. If it closes you need to summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout. There are a lot of sharks in this world – you have to deal with them.
  9. Start singing when you are up to your neck in mud! SEALS train in conditions that breed misery. However, the instructors are looking for that one individual that starts to sing in the face of adversity, neck deep in mud. They know that if one person can do it, than others will too. Never lose hope no matter how deep the mud is.

* The Wall Street Journal, Life Lesson From Navy SEAL Training, May 24 -25, 2014

Greg Geracie is a recognized thought leader in the field of product management and the President of Actuation Consulting, a global provider of product management consulting, training, and advisory services to some of the world’s most well-known organizations. Greg is also the author of the global best seller Take Charge Product Management. He is also an adjunct professor at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on high-tech and digital product management. 

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