It was September 1990. I stood in front of 300 visitors, staff, and students at the Naval Special Warfare Center for graduation, on the verge of becoming a bona fide rootin’-tootin’, parachutin’, deep-diving, demo-jiving, running, gunning Navy SEAL frogman. Only months earlier, I’d been in New York City, the perfect overachieving guy living the prototypical American dream.
After college, I had blithely entered the corporate world of accounting and consulting, where I’d racked up credentials and set my sights on a moneyed future. But after some years, I found myself unhappy with the daily grind, feeling more at peace during intense workouts at the dojo or running through the early-morning streets. During one of my runs, I noticed a poster for the SEALs outside a Navy recruitment office. Be Someone Special, its alluring message read. I felt drawn to the idea of serving others, excited when I imagined challenging myself on a team full of those who shared similar values.
A year later, I was graduating from training. One hundred and eighty candidates had started six months earlier. Of the 19 who graduated, I finished at the top. I beamed as Captain Huth, commanding officer of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training, pinned the coveted Trident—the gold insignia worn by a Navy SEAL—on my uniform.
I went on to have a career as a Navy SEAL and an entrepreneur who has started six successful multimillion-dollar ventures. With more than 20 years of experience, I’ve been fortunate to observe true leadership in the military, in business, and in life.
I’ve noticed that leadership is not a skill. It’s character. Successful, happy, and fulfilled people embody core values such as honor, courage, and commitment to personal excellence. Real leaders command from the heart. They’ve developed an ethical code that makes them both a good teammate and a good leader. When things go wrong, they look within and seek to be better people. Authentic leadership starts with knowing your stand—your purpose in life, against which you will measure all decisions.
Toward the end of my SEAL training, the six-foot-four-inch über-fit SEAL commander called me into his office. I found myself on the receiving end of the famous SEAL “thousand-mile stare” for ten full minutes. Suddenly his voice broke the silence.
“What do you stand for, Mark?” he asked.
“Ah, well, I stand for justice, integrity, and leadership,” I said.
“I didn’t ask for your vanilla values, son! What are your rock-bottom beliefs? Don’t just tell me what you think you should believe in.”
I reflected more deeply. A stand, I suspected, was your character speaking. I thought about my upbringing, all the sports I’d played, my education, the long treks I’d taken with my father in the Adirondacks. I recalled a lecture by my dojo teacher one weekend at the Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock, New York, after an hour of meditation and two hours of physical training. “When you bring your full attention to each moment, a day is a complete lifetime of living and learning,” he said. “You must prepare your mind, body, and spirit. In this way, your destiny is in your control.”
I found my voice and said to the commander, “Destiny favors the prepared in mind, body, and spirit.”
“OK!” he said, his stern expression warming up a bit. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Later I thought about this fateful conversation and wrote the following stand:
• Destiny will favor me if I am prepared in mind, body, and spirit.
• I must work harder than expected and be more patient than others.
• Leadership is a privilege, not a right.
• As a warrior, I will be the last to pick up the sword but will fight to protect myself, my family, and my country.
• I will find happiness through seeking truth, wisdom, and love and not by chasing thrills, wealth, titles, or fame.
• I will seek to improve myself, my team, and the world every day.
Most of us don’t take the time to think deeply about our personal ethos. I didn’t, until forced to by the good commander. However, once I was able to articulate it, the stand became a powerful guiding force. When faced with difficult decisions, I would fall back on my stand. If a potential choice placed me outside it, I wouldn’t do it.
I now coach people from all walks of life to help them reach their full potential. These exercises can help you be a more thoughtful and empowered version of yourself.
1: Write Your Stand
Sit in a comfortable place with a journal. Close your eyes and breathe with deep abdominal breaths for five minutes. Contemplate these questions: What would I do if …
• I knew I had only one year to live?
• A natural disaster struck my town?
• A friend asked me to help him move, but I really wanted to go see a movie that night?
• I found out a favorite brand was exploiting workers or using environmentally destructive practices?
• I won the lottery?
• An opportunity for an inside deal came my way with no chance of anyone finding out?
• My team was bashing a teammate behind his back in my presence?
Think about what your answers say about your character. If your friend asks you to help him move, and you answer, “Sorry, but I have plans,” that could indicate you are operating out of selfish needs rather than holding a team focus. As you work through the questions, you’ll learn about your deeper self and identify areas where you may want to improve. Your stand should suggest those character traits you want to embody, even if you aren’t 100 percent there right now.
2: Define Your Values
Values answer the question, What do I want more—or less—of in my life? Clarifying them helps you stand your ground every day. Leadership, teamwork, family, and faith are a given. Focus on intimate traits that will make you a better, stronger person. To guide you, here are mine:
I WANT TO BE MORE:
• Healthy and positive
• Loving and passionate
• Wise and authentic
• Grateful and truthful
• Playful and fun
• Learning and growing
• Bold and decisive
• Contributive to others
I WANT TO BE LESS:
• Negative and judgmental
• Attached and cluttered
I move toward “healthy and positive” whenever I eat well, hydrate, think of my health, meditate, or train. Such small steps make it easy for me to turn values into a habit, thus forging new character traits.
3: Discover Your Passion
Clarifying what you’re passionate about lets you put energy toward more of it. Your passions answer the question, Who am I at my deepest level? Ask yourself:
• What books, movies, art, or music gets me pumped?
• Who inspires me, and why?
• What characteristics do I have that make me feel great about myself?
• What activities would I do if I had more time and no barriers?
• What is meaningful about them?
• What benefit to others do these activities or characteristics provide?
• Could I make the world even a tiny bit better by focusing more on these?
• What would it take to get me to step into the arena of just one of these activities?
If you find your answers skewing negatively—for example, if you see no benefit to others in your activities or don’t see yourself effecting change in the world in even a small way—you’ve stumbled upon an opportunity for deep reflection.
4: Uncover Your Purpose
This final step is often the most difficult for my trainees. Armed with your self-awareness from other exercises, contemplate all the life paths that look, feel, or sound as if they’re in line with your passion, values, and stand. Write a few sentences or paragraphs defining your purpose in life. Refine it as new insights roll in. I check in with my purpose daily.
Think like a SEAL! Mark Divine offers more than 30 mental exercises to become your best self in The Way of the SEAL, available here or wherever books are sold.