Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Since March of 2020, we’ve been talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, including the pandemic. Today we speak with Mike Hayes, former Commanding Officer of SEAL Team TWO and author of Never Enough: A Navy SEAL Commander on Living a Life of Excellence, Agility, and Meaning. A 20-year veteran of the SEALs, two White House administrations, and senior executive roles in the private sector, Hayes translates the lessons he has learned to help organizations develop stronger leaders and improve their bottom line. He is currently the Chief Digital Transformation Officer at VMware.
David Benjamin and David Komlos: What drove you to write Never Enough?
Mike Hayes: I’ve had a lifetime of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and I’m really driven to give back and ideally pull others up. That’s ultimately what Never Enough is about on multiple levels:
sharing insights from three decades of professional life—and three decades of learning from mistakes—across a wide variety of industry sectors, and bringing that to a reader in a way that’s relatable.
Benjamin and Komlos: In the book, you talk about choosing the hard path every time and you also say that “the L in SEAL stands for lazy”. How do you explain this apparent contradiction?
Hayes: People see life as a binary logic tree of success and failure, but I believe there is another node under failure that says “learned” or “didn’t learn”. If you failed and learned, I would argue that you’ve succeeded because you’re going to grow as a result for the many years in front of you. Picking the hardest path is where all the learning is if you can get past the fear that family, friends or colleagues might think less of you if you try something and fail.
Benjamin and Komlos: In times of crisis, how can leaders maintain emotional control and continue to learn?
Hayes: We’ve all been in hard situations where you’re looking at bad projections for your next quarter or all of a sudden there’s an enormous internal HR issue or legal issue that you’ve got to deal with; and once you’ve lived enough quarters on the planet, you’re going to deal with it all. When you’re in those hard moments, and you get the bad news, you can either be a stress sponge—take the stress, absorb it, and create calm for the organization—or you can take that stress and amplify it upon the people around you. Leaders who amplify stress won’t ever have the best outcomes.
I know that whenever something goes wrong, I might be 100% wrong or I might be 1% wrong, but it’s never 0%. That’s why I always spend time looking at where I went wrong and ask how I can get better for the future. And in the SEALs, after a high-profile, headline-worthy operation where we “saved the day”, we don’t spend the time after that talking about what went well; we spend it talking about what didn’t go well enough. Leaders know “calm breeds calm, excitement breeds excitement”, so they calm their teams during crises, but then make sure the learning happens once it’s over.
How do I look for people with that kind of emotional control? In recruiting, I ask candidates, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life?” In their answer, I learn how they size up something that was hard for them, and I also hear how they think they acted in a difficult situation. They might answer, “I was perfect”, and that extreme overconfidence will scare me away from them; or they might say something like, “By and large things went well, but here’s something I could have done better…”, and that’s the person I want on my team.
Benjamin and Komlos: What is dynamic subordination and how does it apply to leadership in business?
Hayes: Dynamic subordination is about your leaders knowing how to lead and how to follow, and most importantly, knowing when to do which. There are times when there’s hard work to do, but your leaders and first-stringers can afford to move out of the way, parcel it all out to others in the organization, and step back and see who succeeds, who fails and learns, and who fails and doesn’t learn. That means assessing the decision or action or opportunity, and differentiating between the situations where you can afford to put the second string on the field and risk them messing up and learning; versus when the stakes are too high and you must be out there on the field personally.
When you’re at the point in your career where you no longer have to prove anything to anybody, you can let go of the need to make every decision: Leaders don’t have to make the best decision; leaders have to make sure the best decision gets made. Knowing when to step forward and when you can step back frees a leader up from spending cycles on every challenge so that they can focus their energy on the negative space—the unknown unknowns and the things the organization isn’t doing—where a lot of the risk and a lot of the opportunity exists.
Benjamin and Komlos: What other principles do you apply when thinking about problems and how to arrive at the best answers?
Hayes: The first decision in decision-making is when to make the decision. That’s a function of getting the best possible, highest-quality, highest-diversity inputs you can, until the cost of the time associated with getting more input outweighs the benefit. You make your decision at that inflection point.
Then there’s the question of how you make your decision. Is it the senior person in the room, is it a democracy, or is it some other model? What’s important is that everybody is on the same page with whatever the model is, and there is clarity on who gets to make what decision. Without that alignment and clarity, you’re never going to unlock the velocity in your organization.
Benjamin and Komlos: What advice can you offer when it comes to imbuing your life with meaning?
Hayes: When it comes to meaningful work, think about three circles: the first is what gives you energy; the second is what you’re good at, and the third is what the business needs. If you don’t paint the center of that Venn diagram, you’re not going to be successful, and the hardest of the three to find in work is what gives you energy—what gives you meaning. We all have different gifts and abilities and interests, and there’s a tendency to under-recognized that what gives one person meaning isn’t necessarily what gives somebody else meaning.
To discover what that is for you, slow life down and put quiet time on your calendar—solitude, a long walk, meditation—to think about what impact you want to have. You also have to get off the sidelines and try things on.
Even in retirement, which we tend to think of as giving up our day job so that we have more leisure time, you should shift your thinking to the impact you’re having on the planet, how to continue to do the things that give you energy, and how to give back in whatever ways make the most sense to you.
Benjamin and Komlos: Do you have any parting thoughts?
Hayes: Years ago, I remember asking my daughters’ seventh-grade class, “If you have to pair off with somebody to work on a project, how much work do you each have to do?” When they all answered 50%, I told them they were all wrong, and that the right answer is that you have to do as much of the work as you humanly can. Life is ultimately about teammates—the people to the right and left of us—they are why we work; why we choose to do the hard things. When everybody on a team has that mentality of carrying as much of the weight as possible, that team can navigate any amount of complexity and becomes absolutely unstoppable.