The 4 Principles Of Combat (And Business) Leadership From Navy Seal Jocko Willink

For 18 months, your team has served in Iraq, under fire constantly, and in that time has become the most decorated SEAL Team Unit of the war. The last few weeks have been brutal, two of your team members have been killed.

But the end is at last in sight. Your bags are packed and tomorrow, it’s your turn to finally go home.

Then there’s a knock on the door … It’s a platoon commander letting you know that a high-value target responsible for countless Iraqi civilian and American deaths is having a meeting that night. This is your one and probably last chance to put him out of operation.

It’ll be extremely dangerous. You could lose your life or those of men who are scheduled to leave in just a few hours.

It’s a decision you don’t want to make, but the buck must stop somewhere.

Jocko Willink, retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and coauthor of the New York Times bestseller “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win,” shared this story and more at a recent Technology Marketing Toolkit Producers Club meeting in Nashville.

Jocko spoke on the core principles of combat leadership, lessons learned on the battlefield over his 20 years as a SEAL team member and commander of SEAL Team Three, Task Unit Bruiser — the most highly decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War.

Receiving the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and numerous other personal and unit awards, Jocko returned from Iraq to serve as an officer in charge of training for all West Coast SEAL teams, leading the development of leadership training. He personally instructed and mentored the next generation of SEAL leaders who have continued to perform with great success on the battlefield.

The lessons Jocko shared not only apply to your MSP business, but to your life as well.

Nothing Matters More Than Leadership

Jocko took over the advanced SEAL training where they learned to shoot, move, and communicate … where they learned to maneuver elements on the battlefield. And, most importantly, where they learned to lead.

Their very first training exercise involved a simulated mission using paintball weapons.

It didn’t go well.

“It was an unmitigated disaster. And as I’m standing there watching these guys get shot up, I realized the reason that they are failing is because the leaders do not know how to lead.”

Then came the worst thing about this realization: He was the one who owned the responsibility of teaching them how to lead.

As the old saying goes, “the fish rots from the head.” If you don’t model effective leadership as well as instill it in your team, the entire operation can go down the drain. And even though you don’t face dangers from bombs or bullets, IT does involve significant challenges (and threats) including:

  • The ever-accelerating pace of technological change
  • Complexity of integrating systems, processes, and applications
  • Legacy systems that require constant monitoring, patches, and upgrades
  • Unrelenting cybersecurity threats, amplified by a distributed, remote workforce

Tackling these and all the other issues associated with effective business leadership requires a thoughtful, systematic approach, much like the one Jocko realized he needed to create for his young SEAL leaders.

He called it the Four Laws of Combat — and not only did they change how he approached teaching leadership in regard to his SEALs, but they can also change how you lead in your MSP business.

No. 1 Move And Cover

The First Law of Combat is move and cover.

It’s a straightforward concept.

“Let’s say there are some bad guys in a building we want to take out. I’m going to start shooting. Then, while I’m shooting, my buddy moves to a better position. He starts shooting, so I can get up and move to a better position. Cover. Move. Cover. Move. We work together as a team until we take the bad guys out and take that building.”

The principle of move and cover is simple and effective, but it requires working as a team.

Inside the great book by Microsoft engineer Jim McCarthy, “Dynamics of Software Development,” he lists a number of rules to ensure projects run smoothly. Rule No. 31 — “Beware of a guy in a room” — highlights the very real risk many MSPs face when managing a team of high-performing engineers.

The stereotype of the high IQ, low people-skills developer has some basis in truth. On the plus side, this means the “guy in a room” is extremely motivated and able to solve problems. But the downside to this is a tendency to “go dark” and unresponsive. In fact, they sometimes literally have to be dragged kicking and screaming into an environment where collaboration is simply not optional.

The challenges we face today require the best minds working together to solve them. Indeed, the complicated nature of systems and software projects require you to deconstruct problems into many different parts before giving team members shared responsibilities, each having the other’s back as they work through the list of tasks.

This highlights the importance of cross-training in certain applications, such as Exchange Server, so if someone is called in to handle a specific client emergency, you have a backup in place to cover those responsibilities.

You need every member of the team working together to “move and cover” to make your services and your business better and better.

No. 2 Keep Things Simple

We all overcomplicate things, especially when it comes to planning.

Jocko would give his young SEAL officers an exercise where they had to craft a plan to assault a specific target. “They’d disappear for five hours and come back with the most convoluted, complex thing you’ve ever seen in your life.” The best plan, the most brilliant plan, is the one so simple and so clear that every person on the team understands what that plan is.

But even that’s not enough.

Because if the team doesn’t understand the way that you communicate that plan to them, then there’s no possible way that they can execute.

Whether this involves something as simple as ensuring that a client’s server has been properly backed up before upgrading critical updates or that there’s an effective migration of a legacy CRM to a brand-new system, you need to make sure with every communication that you’re crystal clear on the exact outcome you want to see happen, and that includes laying out key details, such as priorities, KPIs, and specific responsibilities.

In addition, effective leaders understand that they need to adjust their presentation style to the audience they’re addressing, and this isn’t just from the front of a room backed up by PowerPoint slides — it’s how you express yourself in email, on the phone, or during a Zoom call.

This takes thought, and it takes discipline.

When you keep things simple, you can ensure that everybody on your team understands the mission.

No. 3 Prioritize And Execute

When Jocko ran these SEAL Leadership trainings, he went to great lengths to make them as realistic as possible.

“We had high-speed paintball guns like real guns. Set designers from Hollywood to make our training sites look like they were villages in Iraq. Special effects people, pyrotechnicians, actors, and actresses.”

This is how the training would play out.

A SEAL platoon would go to clear a building, and as soon as they kicked in the door, there would be explosions, people screaming, fake blood everywhere, nonstop gunfire: It was chaos. Which meant you had a whole lot of crazy going on all at once that needed to be handled.

That’s why Jocko’s Third Law of Combat leadership is to prioritize and execute.

Identify the problem that needs to get solved and get it fixed now. And keep going. Prioritize. Execute. Repeat.

Note that the mistake people often make is to think this means you only take on one problem at a time. Wrong.

Let’s say one of your top customers has had a serious security breach. They’ve been hacked and you need to make things right now.

If you have 10 people on the team, that doesn’t mean you have all 10 doing the same thing. You prioritize and execute on multiple fronts. You start by containing the damage, running an antivirus, and probably resetting passwords. You figure out which systems were corrupted and what data’s been compromised. You make sure the customer is getting status updates and understands what you’re doing to resolve the situation. There may be interaction required with law enforcement. And so on and so forth.

You can’t allow yourself or your team to get fixated on a single target. You need to make sure you understand what your priorities are, then assign responsibilities to handle everything that needs to get done.

But it can’t all fall upon your shoulders alone. And that brings us to the importance of …

To see a powerful clip from Jocko Willink’s presentation to Robin Robin’s Producers Club MSPs, go to

No. 4 Decentralized Command

This just means everybody is a leader.

That’s what you want as a business owner. You want a team that doesn’t need to depend on you for everything. A team where everyone is a leader.

“And I used to tell this to the young SEALs — you’re not going to be able to handle it all. What you need to do is to use decentralized command and let your subordinate leaders actually lead.”

And the way you lead with decentralized command is by making sure that everybody on the team understands: the mission, the goal, the end state they’re trying to achieve, the parameters they’re trying to work within, the perimeters they’re allowed to maneuver in, and finally and most important: why they’re doing what they’re doing.

If they know why they’re doing what they’re doing, they can go out into the field, make decisions, and they all can lead.

Jocko also reinforced that when it comes to growing into your full potential as a leader, the most powerful motivating tool you have is to give someone control over their own destiny. In other words, giving them ownership.

Let’s say it’s been a few weeks after that security breach and the client is still a bit uneasy.

So you tell someone on your team to go follow up by saying, “Bob, here’s what I want you to do, here’s the briefing I want you to give to them, here’s the new software they need to install, here’s what it’s going to cost, and so on. Go make that happen.”

How much ownership does Bob have with that?

None. He’s just a robot. You’re just telling him what to do.

But if instead you say, “Hey Bob, I want you to reconnect with this client who got hacked last month. I want you to touch base with them. Find out where they’re at. Rebuild that relationship and bring it to the next level. Come up with a plan and tell me how you want to do it.”

 So now, instead of being a robot following orders, he’s totally empowered and on board. He’s got control over his own destiny.

And that’s what motivates people more than anything else.

Take Extreme Ownership

  • If you constantly move and cover as a team …
  • If you simplify things so everyone can understand …
  • If you pick the right priorities and act on them …
  • If you create that culture of decentralized command, so everyone knows what’s happening, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and who’s going to do it …

There’s still one more thing.

You need to take extreme ownership. Take ownership of your mission. Take ownership of your job. Take ownership of your team. Take ownership of your clients. Take ownership of your future. Take ownership of your life.

Then, when your Platoon Commander asks, “What will you do?” your last night in Iraq — you’ll know.

And I looked up at him and I said, if we don’t do this mission, who’s going to do it? Are we going to turn it over to the next SEAL team that shows up, that doesn’t know the terrain like we know it? We’re going to let them take the risk?

Are we going to turn it over to one of the conventional units in the Army or the Marine Corps that doesn’t have the gear we have, doesn’t have the training we have? Are we going to let them take the risk?

Or are we just going to let this guy go and continue to kill innocent Iraqi civilians and kill Americans? If we don’t do this operation, then who will do it?

And he didn’t even answer the question. Because he knew the answer. And I knew the answer. If we didn’t do that mission, no one would.

And the team went out that night, and they executed the mission. They got the bad guy, and we all went home.”

So lead! That’s the most powerful tool we have as human beings. Lead yourself, lead your team, and lead your company to victory.

MSP Success Magazine is a print and digital publication dedicated to helping the CEOs and owners of managed IT services businesses build strong, profitable, growth-oriented businesses. Written and published by Robin Robins, founder of Technology Marketing Toolkit, this magazine is uniquely focused on the topics of marketing, client-acquisition, sales, profitability, leadership and personal development.



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