Book Review – TakingPoint: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail Safe Principles for Leading Through Change

TakingPoint: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail Safe Principles for Leading Through Change - Book Review

Brent Gleeson studied finance and economics before enlisting in the Navy in 2000, then going through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S). He became a member of the elite Navy SEAL team, involved in special operations in military theaters in the Middle East. After serving in the Navy, he returned to school, earning a graduate business degree.

In this book, TakingPoint: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail Safe Principles for Leading Through Change, Gleeson attempts to apply the principles used by the SEALs to the business world, offering a “ten-step program” that he has implemented in his own companies and for his high-profile clients—giving leaders and managers actionable insights and a framework for successful execution.

Is Business Strategy Similar to Preparing for War?

Business books are often like self-help books: Some people can’t get enough of them, knowing that they need to change, but not knowing how.

Many business books depend on metaphor: Lately, you see some about ideas like mindfulness or minimalism, in attempts to bring fresh ideas to management.

At the other end of the spectrum is the metaphor of the war: The strategies of doing business are similar to the strategies of waging a battle in which you have targets and must defend your market.

Gleeson takes this latter approach, seeing the need to change as a battle that can be won with the correct approach. Throughout the book, he lauds the principles of the SEALs, and explains how these ideas can change business. Nevertheless, he points out a major environmental difference when he says:

Despite some of the language you hear, business isn’t combat.

As I read this book, one of the problems I see in comparing military special operations to the business world is that the former are generally very short and quick, whereas change in business is a slow, gradual process. While it is possible to extrapolate some of the planning and preparation of a Navy SEAL operation to a business, it may not be generally applicable.

Culture, Trust, Engagement and More

Many books about business and management tend to be repetitive. This makes sense; the authors assume that their readers don’t have the time to read the book straight through, that they may read a chapter now, and then read more while waiting for a plane or during some downtime. In this book, the same themes return over and over, interspersed with in-the-field tales of Navy SEAL operations, followed by sections with checklists and tactical buzzwords.

However, some of the key points that Gleeson focuses on are extremely important in business. For example, he highlights the need for businesses to have:

The first, culture, is something that many companies ignore, or that they let happen naturally. As Gleeson says:

… many companies fall significantly short in doing four things: (1) clearly defining their culture, (2) managing that culture, (3) aligning culture with strategy and desired results, and (4) leveraging culture during times of change.

Establishing this culture – the ethos and tenets of an organization – takes a lot of work, and it can help breed trust and enhance employee engagement, which Gleeson says “is critical for driving change.”

All the above points are interdependent. Accountability, for example, doesn’t exist in isolation. Gleeson writes:

[It] can’t exist — or be built — in an organization that is inconsistent in how and who is held accountable. As it develops over time, people will hold themselves accountable, own mistakes, and get their jobs done because it’s part of the culture. It’s what is expected.

The Ten-Step Model

Gleeson’s TakingPoint model (“When a SEAL platoon is on a mission, the man in front is the point man—he’s ‘taking point’—leading the team into what are almost always volatile, complex, and unpredictable situations.”) attempts this, through ten interrelated steps. A lot of the repetition in the book comes from the fact that these steps cannot be isolated; they are part of a whole. Culture inspires trust and accountability; a mindset leads to appropriate preparation; and inclusion and communication lead to discipline and resilience.

Like any such model, it’s not a one-size-fits-all prescription for success, and its validity depends on the type of business you run. But also, does your company really need the type of radical change that Gleeson advocates? And is it capable of making such a change. As the author points out:

In many organizations I visit, many people in the boardroom don’t understand the time, commitment, and investment it takes to make real changes.

That commitment may be necessary for companies facing strong competition and needing to rebuild themselves, but it might be too much for early-stage startups with very small teams. In addition, some of this book advocates a sort of corporate Darwinism that can be detrimental to the way employees feel valued in companies. Saying, “We embraced the suck and laughed in the face of pain” is metaphorical way of saying endure the hard times to accomplish the mission; but, while most everyone in the military may understand such slang quips, do employees in the workplace really need a similar attitude? (See our review of Lab Rats, by Dan Lyons, for more on this.)

Why Read TakingPoint: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail Safe Principles for Leading Through Change

Gleeson has some interesting things to say in his book, but they may not be for everyone. If the military metaphor for business fits with your mindset, this book can help you better understand some of the simple yet essential principles that can drive change within your organization. If not, you might find all the descriptions of the special operations the author was involved in to be difficult to relate to your experiences. Like all books about change and management, there are some insights to be gleaned here, and if you’re a leader of a startup company it’s certainly worth a read.

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