Lessons From Navy SEAL Commander Mike Hayes
Navy SEALs have a well-deserved reputation for doing, for performance, for carrying out the hardest missions and challenges under incredible pressure. So what can the rest of us learn from them? A lot, as it turns out. Especially if we listen to Mike Hayes. He’s a former Commanding Officer of SEAL Team TWO, and led a two thousand–person Special Operations Task Force in Southeastern Afghanistan. He’s also served in two White House administrations and senior executive roles in the private sector. In our conversation about his recent book, Never Enough: A Navy SEAL Commander on Living a Life of Excellence, Agility, and Meaning, we talk about the lessons Hayes has learned from his decorated life of service about how we can all find more meaning, purpose, and impact in our lives.
Jen: Let’s talk about the title of your book. In the introduction you explain that it’s not, as some might assume, that we should strive for perfection. So what does “Never Enough” mean to you?
Mike: I talk about “Never Enough,” and sometimes people get the idea that I’m pushing for perfection, for someone to never be able to feel proud of what they’ve accomplished, or satisfied that they’ve done the best they can do. But that’s not it at all. Never Enough is about understanding that whatever you’re striving to accomplish, whether that’s becoming a SEAL, excelling in your current profession, or making a difference in the lives of the people in your family or community, you can always grow your capacity, increase your knowledge and skills, and invest more in the people and causes around you. It’s not just that next time you take on a challenge your best can be even better, it’s that you can push yourself to truly align your actions with the goals you’re trying to achieve.
We can never be present enough, purposeful enough, and thoughtful enough as we approach each day. But we can do the hard thinking that helps us truly understand what motivates us, and what kinds of lives we’re hoping to live — and then we can harness our energy to get us closer to those goals. It’s about acting with intention rather than letting life carry us along on a trajectory we don’t control. It’s about considering our mission at every step along the way. It’s about aiming for excellence, agility, and meaning in everything we do and not being complacent and just giving up.
We won’t all be SEALs, but we all have aspirations and dreams, and we can all improve the lives of our friends and colleagues, the organizations we choose to be part of, and the world. It’s never enough to give up trying to achieve the things that matter most to each of us — that’s where my book aims to help.
Jen: The three pillars of the book, which you call benchmarks, are “excellence, agility, and meaning.” Why those three?
Mike: We can push ourselves to our limits across many different dimensions — we can be never strong enough, focused enough, patient enough, accountable enough — but it’s the three pillars of excellence, agility, and meaning that I’ve kept coming back to over the years, that I think best cover the scope of what we do as human beings striving to find purpose in this world.
On an individual level, we must look to be Never Excellent Enough, and build our own capabilities in terms of knowledge and capacity, strength and control, and accountability and orientation. On a team and an organizational level, we must aim to be Never Agile Enough, and understand how to shift between roles to best serve our missions, to put systems in place to lead to superior decision-making, and to keep our teams as flexible and responsive as possible. On an impact level, we must act to be Never Meaningful Enough, knowing what will make the biggest difference for the people in our lives, in our communities, and potentially on an even larger scale.
Jen: Your opening chapter is about “choosing the hard path,” but you also write that “the L in SEAL stands for lazy.” What’s the relationship between choosing what’s hard and being lazy?
Mike: Choosing the hard path doesn’t mean working hard simply for the sake of working hard. As SEALs, we focus on outcomes, not outputs. In the military — and certainly outside of it — it’s easy to get caught up in thinking about production: how many reports have you written, how many tasks have you completed, how many emails have you sent? None of it matters. The size of the effort ultimately doesn’t count. Our long list of tasks keeps us busy but doesn’t actually get us closer to the goal. We don’t get points for how many hours we studied for the exam, how much activity we generated, how long our to-do list ended up. We get credit for how many questions we got right, the value we’ve created in the world, and the actual outcomes we’ve made in people’s lives.
It’s easy in so many contexts to think about the journey and not the destination, to measure what we do instead of the outcome it leads to. But I’d rather find the fastest path to the goal and save the rest of the time and energy for something else. Do it efficiently, achieve the desired outcome, and then move on. Life is either work or leisure. Get the work done, and then you have a valuable option: choose more work or enjoy more leisure. The hardest path doesn’t always mean the longest hours — not if you’re smart about it.
Jen: Life-work integration and managing stress has obviously been a big topic for everyone during the pandemic. And in the book you write about how when you were on missions, you often didn’t allow yourself to register stress in the moment, but it was only when you got home that it hit you and you realized you’d been pushing the stress away to move forward. What lessons have you learned about managing stress that we should all be thinking about in our daily lives?
Mike: Attitude is so important. You can’t make me have a bad day, or even a stressful day. You can try, absolutely, but only I can make me have a bad day. And I’ve had bad days — the loss of far too many friends, teammates, people who were like brothers to me — but you choose whether to let those bad days spin you negatively or to decide that you can only control what you can control, and that you can use what you do control to impact the rest of the world in a positive way.
As far as managing the stress, laughter is a big part of it for me. If I can find the humor in a situation — even a tense one — it can defuse the situation and actually make me think more clearly. If I can find an ally — a teammate, a buddy, even a friend who isn’t in the trenches with me but someone I can talk through a problem with — that can help me handle whatever the situation at hand calls for.
Keeping the big picture in mind — understanding that the discomfort will pass, that the body and the mind will get used to whatever situation we’re in faster than we realize — can also help me retain my composure. Going outside of my body — thinking about the advice I would give a teammate or a family member in the same situation — is another trick that works for many of us.
Jen: You have a great section in the book about leaders helping their team members by being a “stress sponge.” What does that mean?
Mike: We have a choice at any moment to either create stress or absorb it. We can either be the source of stress for others, or take their stress from them and allow them to move forward without it. Whenever I can absorb someone else’s stress — solve their problem, let them off the hook, remove an obstacle in their way — I do it, not only because it helps them individually but because it also helps the entire team. This doesn’t mean they can stop doing everything they can — but it means they know the leader has their back. These are the actions leaders can take to make themselves into the kinds of people about whom others say, “I’d follow him/her anywhere.”
Jen: Another great leadership concept you have is what you call “dynamic subordination.” What is it and how can leaders use that with their own teams?
Mike: You have to see yourself as a leader, and as a follower — and, critically, you have to know when to be which. In an effective team, we all must seamlessly move forward and backward depending on the demands of the situation and the skills of the people around us. We don’t get locked into a particular job, task, or pattern: we maintain the agility to be whatever we need to be under the circumstances. Perhaps even more important, we train just as hard to learn how to be lots of things as we train to know when to be each of those things.
It applies in every sphere. Sometimes you’re the leader, sometimes you’re the follower. Sometimes, in the span of just a minute or two, you’re both. High-performing teams — not just in the military — succeed and fail together, with the best players understanding at all moments what will make the mission more successful and what role they need to play to best enable that success.
Jen: So much of your book is about meaning and purpose. You write about the importance of “pushing your values out into the world,” and “no matter what you believe in, believe in something.” For some, confidence in their meaning and purpose comes easily, but how can people for whom it doesn’t find that sense of meaning and purpose?
Mike: It may take some hard work and introspection to figure out what truly motivates you, what you trust, and what ultimately matters most — but it’s work we all have to do. It’s not the specifics of my beliefs that matter in terms of helping me better my life and making me more effective in everything I do — it’s the fact that there’s a core set of values driving my actions, an ethos I strive to live by, a North Star guiding me in the right direction, keeping me on the right track, or steering me when I fall short. We all fall short, inevitably, but what matters is how we handle those moments, and whether we can get back on course.
Virtually all of us can stand up proudly for the ideas of forgiveness, tolerance, respect, putting others before self, trying to be the best person we can, and living the best life we can live. I don’t know that my beliefs are the truest form of truth any more than I can guarantee that someone else’s aren’t. But I do think that having those beliefs, whatever they are, and living by them can bring us closer to finding meaning in everything we do.
Jen: I love your section on teams and connection, in which you write that “we live and die for people, not causes.” Talk about the importance of teammates and how your experience in the SEALS, in which teamwork is often a matter of life and death, has translated to your work since then?
Mike: We spend a lot of time thinking about the tactical aspects of what to do and how to do it — but we spend less time considering the “why.” In the SEALs, I would ask my team why they were willing to take on such extraordinary risk in missions. And while people talk about the idea of fighting for a cause — for America, for patriotism, for democracy, for contributing to something larger than self — I believe the reason that someone actually moves forward in a challenge is because they care deeply about their teammates, not about their abstract values.
I’ve brought this into my work in the private sector by being really intentional about reaching out and forming bonds. We all worry about the hundred things we could be doing instead of having a conversation with a teammate or colleague. And yet, at the end of the day, who can compare that extra hour of work to the incredible value of getting to know people more deeply, and understand who they are? In every role I’ve had, reaching out has made me a far more effective leader, with relationships that pay off when you need something done, either personally or professionally.
Jen: You write that in creating bonds with others we need to “be intrusive.” How so?
Mike: We often hear “intrusive” as a negative word, and maybe it is sometimes. We don’t want to overstep people’s boundaries, make them uncomfortable, or push past the point of politeness. But I think we need to reframe intrusion as something critically necessary to have meaningful relationships. We have to be willing to intrude, to ask the hard questions and have the hard conversations — or we’re not really making a difference. It’s natural to stick to your agenda, especially in a professional setting. Someone might be struggling, but as long as they’re doing the work, you tell yourself it’s none of your business. But it is our business if we might be able to help. Small talk is easy, but getting someone to be vulnerable, emotional, and honest can be hard. And yet, without those deeper conversations, we can never get to truly know each other.
As a leader in the SEALs, I wanted to be the kind of person others knew they could turn to when things got tough. In life, it’s the kind of person I strive to be for everyone I know. No matter how excellent or agile we train ourselves to become, none of what we do really matters if we lack the meaning that comes from our bonds and relationships.
Jen: In the section on accountability you talk about the need to live with both incredible confidence and extreme humility. Are those two qualities ever at cross purposes? And how can we cultivate them in our daily lives?
Mike: Being humble and being confident aren’t actually in conflict. Being humble doesn’t mean having a lack of confidence. All we have on every topic is varied levels of ignorance. None of us is going to be the best in the room at everything. No one has it all figured out. That’s the humility piece of it. And, perhaps ironically, it takes confidence to be appropriately humble, to be able to admit that others may be smarter, faster, and stronger, and to be willing to reverse course if the situation calls for it.
You can be confident that you have something to contribute, and at the same time recognize that you’re not the only one who has value to add. It takes confidence to give credit to others, to let your teammates shine, to give more than you take, to admit when you’ve made a mistake, to change a plan, and to be fully honest and transparent about everything you are doing. You need to be willing to admit, freely, that you may have been wrong — and at the same time have the utmost confidence to trust your instincts even when it means adjusting on the fly.
Jen: Your last chapter is about making a meaningful contribution to the world. If you’re a SEAL, that sense of contributing to something larger than yourself is very tangible, but how can the rest of us make sure we’re making a difference?
Mike: There are always more people whose lives we can touch, more people we can lift up and inspire to get better and reach greater heights. It’s easy to be complacent. It’s harder to keep on figuring out the work we need to do. But that work is what drives us to our greatest heights. That work is what drives us to make a real contribution to the world — and the truth is that we all want to contribute, because that’s what makes us feel fulfilled.
It can be hard in the business world, where timelines are long and victories often more subtle than when I was in the SEALs. I suspect it’s hard for many of us to figure out exactly how we are contributing in our lives now, and how we can best contribute going forward. But if we keep focusing on what energizes us, what brings out the passion in our voices, the power of a network, and the exponential growth of the investments we make in people, in causes, and in ourselves, we can all find ways to have true impact and to make this great nation and planet greater every single day.