Team allegiance features heavily in the oaths soldiers take when they swear their service to their country. Navy SEALs pledge that their “loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach.” US Army Rangers vow ”Never shall I fail my comrades.” Airborne Troopers promise to “cherish the sacred trust and the lives of men with whom I serve.” The obvious reason: In a military combat situation, teamwork can literally mean the difference between life and death.

In your day-to-day job, the stakes clearly aren’t as high. Collaborating with your colleagues to meet a quarterly goal or get the latest product out the door obviously doesn’t involve the same level of risk as working together to thwart an enemy.

But military teams offer valuable lessons to civilian ones. In fact, teamwork researchers often study the military to help them understand what makes other types of teams—yup, that includes business ones— effective and successful.

One recent study notes that “Team-focused research supported or executed by the military has yielded major insights into the nature of team performance, advanced the methods for measuring and improving team performance, and broken new ground in understanding the assembly of effective teams.”

We asked military leaders turned C-Suite execs which lessons and experiences have made them better leaders and team members. Consider this your boot camp.

Have the tough conversations

Jake MacDonald, former Marine and a Lead Instructor with The Program, a team building and leadership development company

My units were the first conventional unit to cross the line to Iraq in 2002. It was chaos. Someone had set the oil fields on fire. We pushed for about 48 hours without any sleep in 120 degree heat, with no food, wearing full chemical suits and gas masks. We finally got an order that we were going to stop. Then a few minutes later my boss told me to take my team back out on patrol. I was incensed because I was thinking, doesn’t this guy know what it means like to take care of his people? But I quickly realized taking care of us meant bringing us all back home to our loved ones. And that meant my platoon had to provide security so other guys could get some sleep.

When you’re looking out for your team’s best interests, you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear and hold each other accountable. It’s not enjoyable. But if I have a teammate who is consistently showing up late, or who isn’t prepared for meetings, that hurts everyone’s chances of accomplishing the mission—in the business world that might be hitting our numbers so we make money to give to our families. I’m a bad teammate if I don’t say anything to him. It doesn’t have to be horribly tense. Just talk to them, one on one. “This is something that I noticed, and I just wanted to talk to you about it.”

Share the load

-Jason Van Camp, U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret). Van Camp is the CEO of Mission 6 Zero, a Utah-based management consulting organization and executive director of Warrior Rising, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping veterans achieve success in business.

One of the first exercises they do in In Green Beret training is that they put you in teams, give you a huge log, and tell you to hold it over your head for hours. Everybody’s miserable and focused on themselves. In that horrible moment, I lifted my head up. The guys around me were all suffering just as bad as, if not worse than I was. Then my friend Pat lifted his head up as well. We looked at each other and he shouted, “Let’s go Jay, you got this.” And I mustered some energy to shout some words of encouragement back at him. I noticed that more guys were lifting their heads up and looking around. We all began to focus on each other, rather than on ourselves. We began to forget about our pain. Time moved faster. The log felt lighter. The reality is that nothing changed about our situation, except our attitude.

Those situations make or break teams. When the pressure is on, and you’re on a team, it’s not about you. The secret to the elite mindset of Special Operations Force is to look up. You need to take a risk and be vulnerable. You need to expose your heart and truly reach out and get to know the other people at your work. The art of building true relationships and getting to know each other is not in the content of the team’s discussions, but in the manner in which it communicates.

Communicate the mission

John Dillon, a former submarine officer and nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy. Today he is the CEO of Aerospike, Inc.

Good commanders in the military share elements of the mission with the troops—we need to take that bridge, we need to take that hill or we need to be secret or we need to be radio silent, and here’s why. Because if your team is in the field and they have to rely on sending a message back to the headquarters to make a decision, they’re probably going to be killed before they get an answer. If they understand what the higher order mission is, they can make the best decisions on their own.

I still use that experience today running a large tech company. I routinely hold company-wide meetings to review our strategic objectives and challenges. Sharing aspects of our sales strategy may not be relevant, say, to the engineering team or the customer support team. Yet, by understanding the high-level challenges and strategies, people can make more informed decisions that might help the company for issues that do not bubble up to a more senior level.

Recognize team members who deliver on values

Eric Kapitulik, a former platoon leader in the Marine Corps and founder and CEO of The Program, a team building and leadership development company

As a company you need core values and standards that reinforce those values. The Marine Corps has three core values—honor, courage, and commitment—that define how every Marine behaves. As leaders, we tend to recognize performance, which is important. But we also need to recognize when team members deliver on those core values with their behavior. That’s how we communicate what’s important to us. One way the Marine Corps recognizes Marines is simply calling out Marines to the front of formations and telling everyone about how those Marines were being great Marines. In business, say one of your core values is selflessness (a core value at my company). Openly call out people who meet that standard with their behavior. Send a team email, or at the weekly meeting say, “Hey, I’d like to recognize Sarah for how selfless she was. Every day last week before she finished work, she checked in with everyone else to see if there’s anything she can do to help.”

Value diverse opinions

Jacob Werksman, a former Navy SEAL and CEO of Victory Strategies, a consulting firm that utilizes military skills, techniques, and practices to help private sector businesses achieve success.

In a SEAL platoon, you might have an officer that’s been in for 20 years and an enlisted individual right out of high school, who’s been in for four years. Their opinions are both valued equally because they bring different perspectives. I see businesses fail to recognize this. There’s been times that C-Suite executives hire us to do strategic planning. One of our first exercises was asking the administrative assistant at the front door, ‘What do you think about this problem? What would be your solution?’ And we used exactly what she said verbatim and proposed it to the C-Suite executives. And they thought it was a brilliant idea. And I said, ‘Well, that was from your administrative assistant.’ They were just in awe. Listen to your people.

Consider culture when recruiting

– Jacob Werksman

SEALs recruiting process is so demanding and elite that we know the quality of the individual we have within our organization. Every individual that joins, joins for the same reason. The same thing is very relative when it comes to private sector organizations, yet businesses rarely recruit the individual that has a why or a purpose that’s aligned with the organization. This is a misstep. It’s very hard to change someone with a negative attitude or that doesn’t have proper alignment within their organization rather than just recruiting that person from the get-go. When you’re hiring, ask questions like: Why do you want to work here? What does this organization mean to you? Why is it aligned with who you are as both a professional and a person?”


Jake MacDonald

When I was a second lieutenant, my boss made us put a sign over our desk that had three questions on it. It said, “What do I know? Who else needs to know? And have I told them?” I had to be able to answer those three questions every single day. And I messed that up a lot of times as a young officer because I made a lot of assumptions that people knew things, so I didn’t tell them. But at the end of the day, if something didn’t happen because they didn’t know about it, it wasn’t their fault, it was mine.

That’s something we push on corporations a lot. A lot of times people feel like they might insult a team member by telling them that there’s a meeting. Or thinking they must know already. But then people don’t show up because they didn’t know about it. If you don’t communicate something because you don’t want to feel awkward, you’re actually missing out on a chance to help your teammates, to help make them better.

Embrace your team’s knowledge

John Dillon

When I was 25 years old I was on a submarine and I had enlisted men that were 40 years old working for me that were specialists. Some had been working in electronics for 20 years. Some of them had masters and PhDs. I had an enormous amount of respect for them.

I learned how to ask questions that weren’t invasive, but that helped me determine whether the team knew what they were doing and how to pass the solution, or whether they were guessing. Like: What’s the path to resolution? Is this going to be fixed in time for us to go to sea? Asking this way, instead of micromanaging them, made them feel like I trusted them, that I valued them.

It’s the same in my civilian work. I run software companies, have for a long time, and I don’t know more from a programmatic standpoint, than some of the engineers who work for me. I never will. So I ask them questions like Are we going to get this done? What’s your plan X, Y or Z?

Make contingency plans

Jacob Werksman

A lot of civilians think that the SEAL teams are just a sexy concept where all these guys are just great at everything and executing these missions. What they often fail to remind themselves is that everything that could or possibly would go wrong was planned for with a contingency plan 24 hours before that mission even took place. This removes the pressure of having to think through a problem while you’re on target because you’ve already planned for it. Corporate teams need to have similar backup plans. What will you do if a team member is absent for a significant amount of time? As a team, what’s your plan B, C, and D if your subcontractor drops the ball and throws you off your deadline?

9 lessons on teamwork and leadership from the military