Four Leadership Lessons Pastors Can Learn From Navy SEALS

I have always been infatuated with the Navy SEALs. I love the movies, documentaries, and books that tell their story. I even trained alongside of SEALs while at Airborne school during my time in the Army. They were incredible. I still enjoy reading about the SEALs, especially on leadership. The armed services as a whole are leadership factories. And the greatest of all those leadership factories are the Navy SEALs.

The Navy SEALS have an air of mystery surrounding them. They are the fiercest warriors on the planet. Their training is harder. Their standards are tougher. Their missions are more dangerous. They are first-class in all they do. This includes leadership development.

I believe the lessons SEAL leaders learn are highly applicable to pastors and leaders in ministry. Here are four that are immediately applicable:

1. Leaders must take extreme ownership

The Navy SEALS teach their leaders to take extreme ownership of everything in their world. The buck has to stop with someone. Instead of blaming others when things go wrong or do not unfold as expected, the leader must take full responsibility. The heart of extreme ownership is this: leaders must own everything in their world. SEAL leaders are taught to blame only one person when mistakes are made and failures occur: themselves. It is only when a leader truly takes this kind of ownership that he/she will take responsibility for outcomes and results.

What does this look like in ministry? Whether you are a pastor of a church or a leader over a ministry, you must begin taking ownership of everything in your world. If there is a communication problem in your church or ministry, you own it as your fault. This is the only thing that will provoke you to action to fix it. If your team is not unified or working together, you take ownership and act to correct it. As the leader, you take responsibility for everything. This does not mean you do everything. It simply means you are not blaming others for your circumstances. Too often in churches, leaders blame everyone but themselves for the problems that exist. “We do not have enough money to do the things we need to do.” “Our people just don’t serve.” “Our people never invite others to church.” “Our team doesn’t work together.” The list of complaints could fill a book. The leader who takes extreme ownership refuses to talk like this. Instead, they take full responsibility, and seek a way to lead through it.

2.  Leaders must operate with a high degree of humility

To be a SEAL there is a certain amount of belief in yourself that must exists. I would argue there is also a self-awareness of how bad-to-the-bone they are. But one of the things SEALS will not tolerate is ego trips and pride. Pride can affect the planning of missions, listening to others, and getting better. Going to back to the first point, if a leader is going to take extreme ownership, especially blame, it requires a level of humility.

This should go without saying in ministry, but unfortunately it must be said. Leaders in churches must absolutely operate with a high degree of humility. Jesus reminds his disciples after the Last Supper that the greatest among them must become as the youngest; the leader must become one who serves (Luke 22:26). A prideful leader in the church is the antithesis of what Jesus calls us to be. We are to model his leadership and humble ourselves for the sake of serving others (Philippians 2:3-11).

3. Leaders must rely heavily upon teamwork 

In the SEAL teams, one man shows are not tolerated. Sure, acts of valor and courage on the battle field are celebrated, but not the army one of solider often depicted in movies. The SEALs rely exclusively on teamwork. Every member of a SEAL team has a job and clear responsibility that contributes to the mission. They must learn to depend on each other, and refuse to operate independently. Failure to work as a team can be catastrophic.

The same is true in our churches. Pastors often feel the pressure to be one man shows. Everyone looks to the pastor to visit the hospitals, preach every sermon, disciple new leaders, meet new families, lead a small group, and on we could go. We must do everything we can to give away meaningful ministry to others (Ephesians 4:11-12). We need to help people discover their giftings and passions then mobilize them to ministry. The more people involved in ministry, the more ministry that can be done. Pastors must rely heavily upon teamwork and ditch the one man army.

4. Leaders must prioritize and execute 

Navy SEALs are meticulous planners. Before SEALs launch out onto a mission, they have rehearsed and studied the mission many times. However, one of the things they cannot control is what actually happens on the battlefield. An array of challenges and circumstances can erupt on a mission that requires a leader to prioritize and execute. They must determine the highest priority task and lead their teams to execute it.

As pastors, there will be a million things you can give your time to. There will be a thousand ministry ideas people will present to you, hoping that you will execute it. But it is your job, to work with other leadership teams, to prioritize what the most important task in front of the church is at that time, and then execute it. If everything is equally important, than nothing is important. Figure out what the greatest challenge or obstacle is to accomplishing the church’s mission and then mobilize your teams to solve it. Prioritize and execute would help many pastors and their churches to be more effective in their mission. It is the job of the leader to ensure it happens.

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