Throughout my life I’ve had many labels. Parent. Husband. Filipino. Senior Vice President. US Navy SEAL. All of the labels are special and I wouldn’t trade any of them but the SEAL label is the one that I get asked about most often.
Coming out of the Naval Academy I was one of 16 men out of 1,000 in my graduating class that was invited to train to become a SEAL. I was honored. And anxious. Questions came fast and furious: Was I going to be good enough? Did I really belong? All I really knew was that I was going to find out and I was going to find out fast.
SEAL training is known as BUD/S INDOC which stands for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Indoctrination. The 25 week training program is a complete physical, mental and emotional beat down. It is designed to push every candidate to the edge…and then over it.
The Brass Bell
I started with a class of 140 physically fit and fired up warriors. Once training began there was an easy out. There was a big brass bell hanging right in front of the instructor’s office. In fact, the bell travelled with us as we trained. The instructors made sure we always had immediate access to it. Ring the bell and you were out. No questions asked. The pain stopped. A warm meal and a soft bed soon followed. In my class 126 of the 140 men rang that bell. I was not one of them. I made it. I finished first in my class and was one of the 14 candidates left standing that graduated from BUD/S to become a Navy SEAL.
When talking about becoming a SEAL I am commonly asked “what kept you going?”. Often I’m asked if I ever thought about ringing the bell. Did I seriously consider ringing it? Nope. Not once. I hung in there no matter what kind of hell I was currently experiencing. Am I superhuman? Am I immune to pain? Hell no. Here’s the secret. Here’s what sustained me on the really hard days: I had a strong sense of purpose for being there.
Every candidate that entered BUD/S had a reason for being there. Some of them were there because they thought it would be “cool to be a SEAL”. Some wanted to get closer to the real action. Some wanted the prestige associated with being a SEAL. But having a reason to be there wasn’t enough. Of the 14 men I graduated with every single one of us had a deep sense of purpose. All 14 of us were able to draw on this sense of purpose when things got bad.
For me my sense of purpose was tied to two things. First I was there for my family. Both of my grandfathers and my brother served. My father went to the Filipino Military Academy. Growing up my house was full of pictures of military heroes like Generals MacArthur and Patton. Respect and admiration for the military and its leaders was woven into the fabric of my family. In some ways my destiny was always tied to the military, so attending the Naval Academy and becoming a Navy SEAL was natural for me. If I hadn’t graduated from the Academy or if I quit during SEAL training then I would not have been just letting myself down. I would have been letting down my entire family. And there was no way I was going to do that.
My second sense of purpose came from one of my best friends at the Naval Academy. His name was Doug Zembiec. Doug was a Marine. A Force Recon Marine. If Doug walked into a room full of SEAL’s and Green Beret’s and Delta force guys he would automatically be the toughest guy in the room. By far.
But Doug wasn’t just tough. He was a fantastic friend because he truly believed that I could do anything I set my mind to. His enthusiasm was contagious and he brought out the best in the people.
Major Doug Zembiec
Doug’s most powerful natural gift was his eyes. When Doug set those eyes on you it was transforming. I knew that Doug believed in me and would go to the ends of the earth to help me if I needed it.
That brings me back to BUD/S. I could not imagine walking up to Doug, looking him in the eyes and telling him that “I didn’t make it.” The look of disappointment in his eyes would of cut right through me. I was NOT going to disappoint him so I kept going.
BUD/S is over and so is my career as a SEAL. I’ll always be a SEAL but I am no longer serving on the teams. I now work with companies on finding and building leaders and I work with individuals on leadership development. Guess where I tend to focus time and attention with them? That’s right. Identifying a sense of purpose and being able to articulate it clearly.
In the business world there are lots of people that work for the next paycheck or the weekend or their next vacation. They may enjoy their jobs but they have reasons for working not a defining purpose. It’s like a BUD/S candidate that wants to be a SEAL because being a SEAL is cool. The very best leaders I’ve worked with have a purpose that drives them. They believe that what they do has meaning and in most cases it has meaning beyond themselves. But it goes beyond that. The best leaders have a purpose and they can articulate it. That means that when asked they will tell you exactly why they do what they do and why, as a result, you should follow them.
When I talk about the idea of purpose I am asked for examples. I’ve given you mine: my family and Doug. Here are examples from two heroes: one from the military and one from the business world.
“Duty, Honor, Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.” -General Douglas MacArthur
“Focus and simplicity: these have been my mantra. The simple may be more difficult than complex. You have to work hard to clarify your ideas to make what you think is simple. But in the end, it’s worth it because once you do, you can move mountains.” -Steve Jobs, Apple Founder
General MacArthur boiled his purpose down into three words: Duty, Honor and Country. Steve Jobs had two: Focus and Simplicity. The teams and armed forces that followed these two men knew and understood their purpose. When times got tough – and they always do – these leaders and their teams knew why they were hanging in there. They understood that it was worth the struggle to get to the finish line.
Here’s the bottom line. There is no silver bullet. There is no magic formula that can be followed. When times get tough the tough have a purpose for doing what they do and that keeps them moving forward.
So, what is your purpose? Do you know it? Can you articulate it? As importantly, do people around you know it?
Your purpose is yours. Define it how you want. It doesn’t have to be two words. Or three. You just need to own it. Figure that out and you can do anything you set your mind to. You can achieve beyond what you thought possible and never ring the bell.