3 Leadership Lessons I’ve Learned From Rorke Denver

Danielle Neal

05 March 2016

You may know U.S. Navy SEAL Commander and author Rorke Denver from his leading role in the movie, Act of Valor—the true story of an elite team of Navy SEALs who embark on a covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent. Or maybe you’ve read Rorke’s NYTimes best-selling book, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior. But I know Rorke Denver as a “Leader Worth Following” from his years of sharing real-life stories and leadership insights at Leadercast Live and in his videos on the Leadercast Now platform. When Rorke talks leadership, he takes us inside his personal story … offers lessons learned from the demanding SEAL training program … and shares his experiences on the battlefield for an amazingly unique perspective on what it means to be a leader. Over the years, he’s taught me leadership lessons that are meaningful to me in my work and my life, but are also key to the development of every leader regardless of his or her position within an organization. Here they are:

1. Choose to Learn from Failure

We’ve all felt it. The all too familiar sting of rejection, whether it’s in the form of a failure or hearing “no” to an incredible opportunity. It never feels good and it can be pretty humbling. But there’s a way we can walk through failure and still come out on top. Rorke offers his tips and advice in this Leadercast now video, Constantly Improve Your Position.

• We have to learn, adapt, and constantly improve our position.

This is a lesson Rorke learned while training as a U.S. Navy SEAL. He was in the field with his SEAL team and got called out by his leader in front of his entire team—two days in a row! “The embarrassment only lasted about a minute or so. The lesson will last forever,” says Rorke.

He continues, “Make a note on your desk, small enough not to overwhelm, but big enough to see, that reminds you of this simple concept: ‘Constantly improve your position.’ It’s a gift you can give your organization and yourself.” As leaders, we have to constantly improve ourselves. The answer to yesterday’s failures may not be the same answer to tomorrow’s potential failures. We have to learn, adapt, and constantly improve our position.

• Resiliency means not surrendering to failure.

Rorke was turned down for the U.S. Navy SEAL program right out of college. “I put in my first application and they said no, and I am glad it went that way…when they said no, I thought, ‘that ain’t going to cut it.’” Rorke reapplied and was accepted. He went on to complete the demanding training, joined the team and was deployed all over the world. “I value the never-quit, focused attitude,” says Rorke. What would Rorke’s life look like if he gave up after receiving that letter of rejection? What would your life look like if you decided to give up after past failures?

2. Get in the trenches with your team.

Ever had a boss who never left his corner office unless it was to meet with the “higher ups?” A boss who sent down decrees like a king to his people without really taking the time to know who you were or what it was like to do your job? Working for leaders like that is difficult.. Or maybe you’re the one who needs to take a couple of minutes to walk around the office and get to know who your team is and what they do. Rorke shares the lesson he learned firsthand from his father about how important it is for leaders to get in the trenches with their teams. He says, “It proved to be one of the true secrets of success. I never got the pulse of what my guys or organization was experiencing from an email while locked away in my office. I had to get out where the day-to-day work was taking place.” This is true whether you’re leading the team or you’re on a team. Success comes from having a pulse on what’s going on in the organization.

3. Teach the leadership you’ll require.

When I was 16, I started working at a local deli. Weekends were pretty busy, and on my first weekend shift, my manager assigned me to the register during a big rush of people. Then he left the restaurant and went to the store across the street for produce! His departing words were, “You can do it. Try not to mess up.” And then he was gone. Imagine the shock racing through my brain! Having only worked the register once or twice prior to this shift, I was panicked! But I learned a few things that day and here’s what they are:

• Sometimes the best way to learn is by being thrown into the thick of it and having to figure your way through the chaos.
• Slow down and focus.
• I knew more than I thought I did.
• Good leaders let you put practice into action.

Afterwards, I spoke to my manager. He said the best way to learn is to just do it. Looking back, this was one of my first major lessons in leadership. And it’s a lesson that Rorke Denver truly believes in. Leadercast Now video he shares, “Find ways to create opportunities for young and new leaders to exercise what they’re learning …get them into the pressure cooker immediately, put them into situations where they’re forced to put into action the skills that they’ve been learning.” Sitting in a comfort zone doesn’t form leaders; leaders are formed by putting skill and knowledge into practice.

Three things we can do to put these lessons into practice:

• Reflect on a time you’ve failed. How did you handle your failure? Based on Rorke’s story and advice, how would you react to that failure differently now?
• Are you taking time to know your team members and what they do? Whether you’re the team leader or a team member, put 10 minutes on your schedule each week to get to know one member. Use that time to learn what he/she does; what he/she likes and doesn’t like. If you’re the team leader, ask for suggestions that your team members have to improve their roles.
• What are you currently doing to grow your leadership skills? How can you step outside of your comfort zone? And are you helping to develop young leaders or those coming along behind you?

A great way to invest in your leadership is attending Leadercast Live. The conference will focus on visionary leadership, and we’re honored to have Rorke speaking at Leadercast Live on May 6, 2016.

Danielle Neal

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