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Leadership Lessons from a Navy SEAL Commander, and a Zen Master

Updated: Feb 15, 2021



You may believe that leadership qualities are in-built, something that only certain people possess.

Others may believe that they can be taught.

Whether they can, or cannot, what is to be a leader in the first place?


Rich Diviney spent 20 years as a Navy Seal Commander, and has just released a book called The Attributes: 25 Hidden Drivers of Optimal Performance. I heard him speak about Leadership on a recent podcast, and his words rang true to me:


We often conflate being in charge with being a leader. Saying I'm a leader is like calling yourself funny, right? Unless you're making someone laugh, you're not funny.

You know, other people designate you a leader, which means leadership is a behavior, not a position.

Okay, you can be in charge, but other people will decide whether or not you're their leader in terms of how you behave towards them. And so we begin to look at leadership from a behavior standpoint. And this is where a lot of promotion processes fail us because a lot of it says, 'Okay, if you do this and then this and then this, you will be promoted to this and you'll be in charge of a bunch of people'.


So often people are promoted out of what they're so good at, into maybe a position of leadership, and it doesn't mean they shouldn't be there; what it means is that if that happens, you have to recognize that your job has fundamentally changed.

Now you have people in your span of care and it's your job to to behave in a way that allows them to say, 'OK, yeah, I would follow that guy, I would follow that girl anywhere'.


As a TV Drama Director I've had to lead a big numbers of crew and actors.

The buck essentially stops with me on the set.

I don't have the technical skills of the camera operator, or the acting skills of those in front of the camera. All I have to do is sit in front of the monitor and decide if the take will make the cut, or whether we go again, and then be clear about why we are going for another one.

I used to think I had to act the role of the director, as I'd seen portrayed and stereotyped in movies. That of of a brash, loud, over the top person, and then I realised that's not me

I'm passionate but not full of bombast.

My voice doesn't boom across the set, in fact I can be pretty quiet.

But I can be assertive when I need to do, and I'm willing to back my decisions - without necessarily knowing whether they are correct, because that's all subjective right?

It's like showing the same movie to a 100 people. Everyone will have a different opinion at the end of it. On set I'm a director, that's my label.

But I don't lead anybody, that is not my call to make.


On the football field. I captained most of the teams I played for. I didn't see those leadership qualities in myself, but managers seemed to.

I was often described as influential in the way I played and if that meant leading by example then so be it. But then I was never one for big loud speeches in dressing room, and on the rare times I did do them it felt unnatural to me and I think others would sense into that.

So, I would leave much of the pep talks to those more naturally born loud players in the dressing room - knowing that this was an area I needed to delegate for the benefit of the whole.

And anyway I'd often seen captains shout the right words in the dressing room and then would go missing out on the pitch when it mattered.

A quiet word individually in the ears of my teammates would be my way.


I've met many people over the course of my life who try to act the role of a leader, but for me that is like trying to pull the wool over people's eyes and you can see through all that bravado pretty quickly.

Some leaders try to rule through fear, and an iron fist, but this strikes me as a very limited approach.

You may get results, but this is because most people blindly follow authority and will tow the line so that they don't rock the boat and still get to pick up their pay cheque.

But people won't go the extra mile for you from the depths of their soul when you really need them to, because you are merely looking at them in terms of what you can get out of them, rather than looking beneath the surface at what makes them truly tick and resonate as a human being.

Dr Ginny Whitelaw is the founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership. She is a Zen Master, and once held a senior leadership position at NASA. She has over 25 years experience in coaching and developing leaders. This is what she says about Leadership in her fascinating book Resonate: Zen and the Way of Making a Difference:


From a resonance perspective, it's clear that one can create an enormous amplification of signal by playing to someone's fears and regressing them to a place they once grew up through. In fact some leaders use this as a strategy and we see it all over social media. It's a good way to grab attention even more strongly than do positive ones. But I would not call it leadership in the largest sense because it's ultimately egocentric, not universal. And even though such leaders can make a big splash at the time, history tends to judge fear-based leaders accordingly. There's a different place in history for leaders like Lincoln, Gandhi or Mandela who unite rather than divide.


She talks about creating a splash and for me that is a useful description of humanity.

We are all waves in the same ocean.

For me it is the idea of separation that caused some leaders like Hitler to divide, as opposed to the ones mentioned above who attempted to unite.

There might be hierarchies in most organisations, and I have always been respectful of this in terms of being respectful of someone's achievements.

But I have never looked at a similar hierarchy existing in terms of being human.

When I was at Manchester United I was respectful of people way ahead of me in their careers like Roy Keane, David Beckham, and Ryan Giggs, but I was never in awe of them.

I saw them as extremely gifted, but still humans at the end of the day, facing the same challenges of being human as the rest of us face.

To say one person is better or worse than another would be like saying one wave is better than the other. It's all subjective... although saying that the surfers out there may disagree with me!

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