To master your craft is to lead by example—to inspire those around you by your commitment to excellence and virtue. Too often, I think “leading by example” is dismissed in leadership circles. It’s taken for granted as the obvious thing leaders should do. Only hypocrites lead with “do as I say, not as I do.” I would like to take time here, though, to emphasize the importance of fundamentals when exercising leadership. And leading by example is a pillar of successful leadership. Do not take for granted this concept. The members of the team are always looking at you, noticing your mindset, your attitude, your preparation, and also your commitment to the task at hand.
When I was a junior officer in the SEAL teams, I observed how officers who were otherwise good managers did not have the “lead by example” aspect of leadership down as well as they could have, and this hurt their reputation. Even though the job of an officer in the SEAL teams is NOT to be the best shooter, or assaulter, or jumper, you still have to have a basic competency in the fundamentals of the job in order to command the respect of your teammates. The job of an officer is to supervise, set the commander’s intent, delegate, mission plan, and during operations serve as the ground force commander, maintaining awareness of the overall picture and not getting “sucked into the weeds,” which would be stepping on the toes of the senior enlisted advisor. Leading by example is even more imperative for senior enlisted personnel at the platoon and troop level, where tactical proficiency is an absolute must.
For two years prior to my tour as a platoon commander, I was serving in a disassociated assignment, meaning not in a SEAL platoon. Knowing that my basic platoon skills would be rusty, and also that I needed to arrive as the platoon commander ready to perform on the first day, I committed myself to showing up in the best all-around physical shape I could be in, as well as having my military kit up-to-speed, not looking like it had been in a gear locker for the better part of the past two years (which it had been, but I dusted it off and pretended otherwise). That meant asking enlisted operators’ opinions on how to best set up my kit based on the nature of current operations. I knew that I would be judged on the first training trip based on how my kit looked, and also on my physical performance. These were aspects of the job that I could control, so I prepared accordingly. Other factors, such as the fact that I hadn’t been in a shooting house in a couple of years, and had not been jumping or diving, were out of my control. But when those blocks of training came around in the platoon training cycle, I made sure to refresh my skills as quickly as possible and volunteered to be at the front of the entry teams during house runs, when it made sense and wouldn’t distract from the more important training of the enlisted members of the platoon.
I will leave it to others to decide whether I was an effective leader by example. I certainly could have put more effort into mastering my craft, especially the parts of the job that were not as inherently appealing to me. My purpose here in telling these stories is to highlight the importance of the principle. Looking back on my time in the Navy, it is very clear to me now how critical it is for leaders to master their craft and lead by example. This takes consistent focus and dedication. In so doing, you will inspire others to do the same.