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Former SEAL Chris Fussell shares some lessons on organizations with businesses, sailors

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: December 29, 2017

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Former Navy SEAL Chris Fussell, dressed in a business suit, grabbed a microphone and launched into a well-rehearsed presentation that many corporations want their employees to hear.

To succeed, he says, forget about top-down-only leadership structures and create networks that work in tandem with them. Be prepared to constantly adapt, innovate and empower those who report to you to make their own decisions. Develop trust among different teams, open communication and create a shared organizational narrative.

But Fussell wasn't speaking to corporate titans looking to hear how his war stories apply in the boardroom. He was speaking to a room full of people who have spent most of their careers in war, explaining how decision making in the business world is more similar to the military than they might realize.

Both traditionally operate as large bureaucracies, and successes at the individual or small team level don't always translate to overall success, much like how SEALs were accomplishing missions in Iraq but the insurgency remained.

"If your core strength is your small team, which is exactly what we brought into the fight, it’s not enough. You will get your lunch handed to you by much less capable competitors who are driving as a network and constantly adjusting to the environment," he said. "We have to force ourselves to change the way we operate and pass information."

Fussell was the featured speaker earlier this month during a professional development series at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story that was put on by Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. The command oversees a wide variety of forces that include naval construction, mobile diving and salvage, Riverines and explosive ordnance disposal units around the world, some of whom work up close with special operations forces.

Fussell spoke broadly about how top-down organizational charts create silos where those closest to a problem in the grey area between silos don't have an incentive to solve it because at best they won't get credit for an idea that works, and at worst will be punished for one that doesn't.

"When you're fighting a network, this is where they win," he said.

In a nearly hour-long presentation, Fussell didn't once mention tactics like rappelling from a helicopter, kicking in doors in search of terrorists or the best way to sneak aboard a ship undetected. Instead, he launched into what could easily be a graduate-level business course in leadership strategies and organizational management.

He focused heavily on what he learned working on the staff of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as he reshaped U.S. strategy to combat al-Qaida's decentralized network by creating decentralized networks of his own on the ground as the former head of a joint special operations task force.

"Most of the work I do is in the corporate space and so I’ll forgo the SEAL background stories to get people psyched up for how cool the SEAL teams are," said Fussell, who left active duty in 2012. "We’ll just dive right into the theory, and I’m sure there are many people in this room that have lived this, some probably much more closer than I am."

Fussell wrote a New York Times bestselling book about what he learned from McChrystal called "Team of Teams" that delves more deeply into that approach and how it applies in the world of business and non-profit organizations. Fussell said one key is to enable open communication from the bottom up, where those on the ground floor of a problem learn they can get the authority to solve problems by participating in a broader conversation with management and others that is public.

Rear Adm. Brian Brakke, commander of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, said he wants everyone who works for him to learn those lessons, whether it's a high-ranking officer, a young enlisted sailor or a civilian working to support him.

Fussell's presentation, like all of his monthly professional development speakers, was open to every person in Brakke's command. He dedicates an entire day to professional development every month so everyone across the NECC enterprise can grow in ways that aren't covered in typical military training.

"I try to keep it simple in an overarching framework of what we do," Brakke said. "We’re going to bring somebody in to talk to us about something different, not necessarily the Navy knowledge online, specific training we have to do each year, but something that makes you think critically, that helps you develop personally, but helps you develop to fit into our framework to help create combat effectiveness for the force."

Brakke has brought in speakers that have focused on topics from sexual assault prevention and response to NASA technology. He said one of things he hopes his sailors learn is that it's OK to fail once in awhile.

Fussell drove home the importance of that point during his presentation. He said that if leaders always punish those whose ideas don't work, people will stop offering them up and that an organization suffers in the long run because nobody will offer new ways of thinking. He likened it to everyone in baseball having a high batting average, but nobody scoring because having a high batting average is what's incentivized.

"That has to be public that your’e willing to accept risk and failure," he said. "If you can demonstrate that to me as a leader, then I can watch one of their ace teams that I’m trying to become like, I can watch them mess up, watch you share that in real time, but also learning and not killing them for it. Then I'm more willing to take that next step ... eventually we start to move a lot faster."

©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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