'Make your bed right:' Tips on leadership from the commander of the bin Laden raid

Chancellor of University of Texas Adm. William McRaven (Ret.), former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command and longtime Navy SEAL, gives an address in San Antonio on Dec. 1 during a federal health conference. McRaven currently serves as chancellor of the University of Texas Systems.


By PETER HOLLEY | The Washington Post | Published: April 6, 2017

The first thing William McRaven does when he wakes up each day is make his bed.

Referring to McRaven's practice as a strictly executed "habit" doesn't do it justice. It's more like a ritual or a daily rite or perhaps even a "lifestyle." The bed-making routine began during basic SEAL training in the late 1970s and continued as he rose from a junior officer in the Navy to the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command – the position he held until he retired in 2014 after 37 years of service.

In addition to being a legendary "terrorist hunter," McRaven is, of course, no ordinary bed-maker; he's a master folder of threads, no matter the count, and one who devotes more than an entire page in his new book – "Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life . . . And Maybe the World" – to explaining the requisite angles, creases and alignment that produce a properly made bed.

The 61-year-old McRaven – a four-star admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden – argues that it's no coincidence that his dedication to bed-making dovetailed with his prolific rise through the Navy.

"There's a power behind making your bed every morning," McRaven, now the chancellor at the University of Texas System, told USA Today. "Learn to do the little things well, learn to make your bed right. And that transcends into a lot of other things you do."

McRaven's 125-page book, which hit shelves this week, began as a popular commencement speech that he gave to graduates of the University of Texas at Austin in 2014 about the 10 lessons he learned from Navy SEAL training.

"They were simple lessons that deal with overcoming the trials of SEAL training, but the ten lessons were equally important in dealing with the challenges of life – no matter who you are," McRaven writes about the speech, which spread widely on social media.

As Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock noted in 2011, McRaven worked "almost exclusively on counterterrorism operations and strategy" beginning in 2001 when, as a Navy captain, he was assigned to the White House shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"The author of a textbook titled 'Spec Ops,' McRaven had long emphasized six key requirements for any successful mission: surprise, speed, security, simplicity, purpose and repetition," Whitlock wrote. "For the especially risky bin Laden operation, he insisted on another: precision."

"He understands the strategic importance of precision," a senior Obama administration official who worked with McRaven on the bin Laden mission told Whitlock. "He demands high standards. That's why we've been so successful."

The latest book – which expands upon and personalizes McRaven's military lessons while tracing his impressive career – is ostensibly about leadership, but it's full of captivating personal anecdotes from inside the national security vault. Among the most entertaining is a not-so-subtle knock on another famous leader's bed-making habits: Saddam Hussein.

It was December 2003, McRaven writes, and the recently captured strongman was being held in confinement in a small room at the U.S. military's makeshift headquarters on the Baghdad airfield.

"He also slept on an Army cot, but with the luxury of sheets and a blanket," McRaven writes. "Once a day I would visit Saddam to ensure my soldiers were properly caring for him. I noticed, with some sense of amusement, that Saddam did not make his bed. The covers were always crumpled at the foot of his cot and he rarely seemed inclined to straighten them."

McRaven's lessons, like his commencement speech, extend far beyond his bed-making. He devotes the 10-chapter book to lessons about moving beyond failure, standing up to bullies and giving others hope.

Throughout the book, McRaven reveals that he is a fierce believer in the power of grit and its ability to trump daunting obstacles, as well as other people's natural talent. In Chapter 3, for example, he recalls the first time he met Lt. Tom Norris, a legendary Vietnam veteran who survived a gunshot to the face on one occasion and rescued two downed airmen behind enemy lines on another, earning him the Medal of Honor.

Moments before their introduction, McRaven – then a recruit – had been eyeing Norris in a hallway and assumed the scrawny, mop-haired man was a misguided recruit who was bound to flunk out of the rigorous training.

"I felt a pang of sorrow that someone had misled this fellow, maybe encouraged him to leave his comfortable life as a civilian and try SEAL training," McRaven writes.

Minutes later, after a lieutenant greeted Norris with a bear hug, he discovered how wrong he was.

"This was Tom Norris, who battled back from his injury to be accepted into the FBI's first Hostage Rescue Team," McRaven wrote. "This quiet, reserved, humble man was one of the toughest SEALs in the long history of the Teams. In 1969, Tommy Norris was almost booted out of SEAL training."

"They said he was too small, too thin, and not strong enough," McRaven continues. "But much like the young sailor in my class, Norris proved them all wrong and once again showed that it's not the size of your flippers that count, just the size of your heart."

Although the book was adapted from previous writings, McRaven told USA Today that he struggled with retelling certain stories. Among them, he said, is a passage where he describes visiting 19-year-old Army Ranger Adam Bates at a combat hospital in Afghanistan. Bates had lost both his legs to a pressure plate mine.

Unable to speak and badly injured, Bates communicated with McRaven the only way he could – using sign language.

"Writing that story took me back to that moment in Afghanistan," he told the newspaper, apparently on the verge of tears. "You never forgot that."

McRaven told USA Today that he decided to turn his commencement speech into a book after it went viral and he received numerous stories from people around the world who said they were inspired to battle through personal challenges, such as disease and the loss of loved ones.

"It wasn't a speech about being a SEAL," he told the newspaper. "These are life lessons that could be used by anyone from any generation."