• T. Kearny Vertner, III

Observations: Sea Stories

Admiral William McRaven (Ret) shares some insightful lessons learned from his wild life.

Admiral William McRaven (Ret) is one of the most fascinating modern-day military leaders. A career Navy SEAL officer, he commanded numerous elite units and performed key roles in critical missions all around the world. Most notoriously, he oversaw the daring Operation NEPTUNE SPEAR, which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. He closed his career as the top special operator, commanding all of United States Special Operations Command and taking the honorary title of Bull Frog as the longest-serving SEAL, a fitting capstone to a remarkable 37 years of service.


Yet for all of those brilliant highlights, those aren't the only stories that make it into his autobiography, Sea Stories. Expanding on his amazing 2014 University of Texas commencement speech and the resulting book, Make Your Bed, McRaven chronologically details several stories that shaped him as a leader, SEAL, husband, and father. This is a bit different from many autobiographies. There are no lengthy chapters broadly pouring over his life; instead, he selects just a handful of tales and writes deeply about them. Each has a lesson, but McRaven's no Aesop. He doesn't indulge in an exposition at the end of the story, explaining why it mattered. He leaves that to you.


Resiliency


One of the most consistent themes in all of his stories is resiliency and caring for others. Whether he's trying to free his neck from a boat line while submerged under a capsized boat in rough surf or recovering from a split pelvic bone after a disastrous parachuting accident, he doesn't shy away from vulnerability. Some warriors with his experience would fill their books with daring tales that ended with the bad guy killed and the warrior celebrating triumphantly. McRaven instead shares those moments that terrified him most or almost broke him. When he does find glory, he's quick to hand it to his teammates. Even when he was in pain, his first thought was always, "how is the rest of my team?" Eschewing the typical hero's role, McRaven quietly demonstrates his heroism through how he wrestled with painful challenges and devastating setbacks.


McRaven's ability to show vulnerability without seeming weak is a trait I find important among leaders. I recently discussed the countless advantages of being able to do so when I wrote about Dr. Brené Brown's Dare to Lead. When you can successfully capture the lessons you learned from your failures or setbacks, you can promote a more resilient culture in your organization. McRaven's work in this arena has been both significant and timely; his tenure in U.S. Special Operations Command was during its highest-ever operations tempo, which had a corrosive effect on the minds and hearts of special operations personnel. Special operations is a community that's notoriously stubborn about seeking help, and I can't underscore how important McRaven's humbling attempt at normalizing vulnerability as a strength is.


One of McRaven's earliest stories is about his SEAL training. Basic Underwater Demolition School - or BUDS - is a grueling 24-week course that tests a sailor's grit and determination. As he faced countless other challenges throughout his life, he often reflected on his BUDS experience and concluded, "if I could overcome that, I can deal with this." One statement he and his teammates would tell each other throughout BUDS was to just "take it one evolution at a time." Each evolution - or phase - of training brought new pain, but it also meant you survived the last one. I saw a similar lesson from a very different source: Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.


In the very first episode, we find Kimmy Schmidt (played by Ellie Kemper) escapes from a doomsday cult hiding in an underground bunker, convinced that they were some of the few survivors of a full nuclear exchange. While in the bunker, Kimmy and two other young captives each take a turn cranking a handle (for an unclear reason). Whenever it got hard, Kimmy would count to ten, brightly exclaiming, "you can do anything for just ten seconds!" When her ten seconds were up, she'd start counting again. I've seen this powerful tool used a lot: many marathoners don't run 26.6 miles; they run to the next small landmark repeatedly. Many writers don't write one long book; they write multiple smaller stories that become chapters. As the adage goes, "how do we eat the elephant?"


"One bite at a time."


Critique


I loved this book. McRaven writes in an approachable fashion and doesn't wholly drown civilian readers in military jargon or acronyms. While his stories aren't directly linked, he organizes them chronologically, and you can see how his life and career followed the arc of modern history. While I recommend this book, one shortcoming I found is that many of the stories he tells are just retellings or expansions of stories you've already enjoyed in his prior works. The new stories provide similar lessons on leadership and resiliency, but there's nothing groundbreaking. If you're pressed for time and not sure which McRaven book to read, go enjoy Make Your Bed first. Once you've fallen in love with that one and you're eager for more, come back to Sea Stories. As a side note, you get a nice bonus if you like audiobooks. The man himself reads it, and his voice is powerful, clear, and highly engaging.


Conclusion


In case you couldn't tell, I'm a big admirer of McRaven. He's a larger-than-life warrior who embodies so many of the traits I find essential in a leader. His selflessness and devotion to both his teammates and family are evident throughout his writing. Most important, he's not afraid to embrace his vulnerability, exposing the times he experienced pain, challenges, and setbacks. He also shows that if you can just "take it one evolution at a time," you can get through them. Learning that kind of patient dignity is important for anyone, regardless of profession or circumstance. I highly recommend military and civilian alike take the time to check out Sea Stories. Furthermore, I encourage you to check out Make Your Bed and see why it's still on my Top 5 Leadership books! Let me know if you've enjoyed either and what your thoughts were! What leaders have inspired you and helped develop your resiliency?



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