Decision Making Criteria for a Navy SEAL

What’s it take to be a Navy SEAL?

Recently, while working with a government client, I struck up a conversation with an ex-Navy recruiter.   He shared a story about a recent change in the ideal profile for a Navy SEAL.  Apparently, the most fertile ground for finding elite candidates has traditionally been high school and collegiate athletics.  Recruiters have long spent considerable time and energy looking for the cream of the crop to fill the ranks.  As you might imagine, they targeted the top swimmers from the top college programs in the nation, since the job of a SEAL requires surviving aquatic conditions most of us would consider impossible.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of candidates wash out of the program, requiring considerable investment that is eventually lost.  So recently the Navy commissioned the Gallup organization to conduct an analysis of the SEALS to identify what separates the elite from the very good1

While collegiate swimmers made the list, they were not at the top.  Football, baseball, and basketball players weren’t even on the radar.  Instead, the best candidates played water polo.  But close behind were triathletes and others in sports that have nothing to do with water at all.  Lacrosse.  Rugby.  Boxing.  Wrestling. 

But the most surprising thing?  Athletes who played chess were three times as likely to succeed as those who did not.

On the surface, it seems odd.  But after a thoughtful analysis, it’s clear why.  The sports listed require incredible stamina, endurance, and the ability to take a beating.  Couple that with mental agility and you have an ideal candidate for SEAL excellence.

Once you read the study results1, it makes perfect sense, but my guess is that recruiters never used to ask about chess.

The same thing happens in our organizations.  When making decisions, we utilize experience and “common sense” to develop criteria for the decision.  But how do we identify all the criteria that will really predict the most successful outcome.   Consider the following actions to “seal” your next decision:

  1. Ask, “Why are we making this decision?”:  Answering this question helps you identify which criteria will be most important.  It sounds simple, but if you are looking to select the best IT consulting firm because your current resources are not delivering fast enough, then “speed” will be one of your key criteria. 
  2. Study Successful Decisions:  Let’s face it, sometimes even expert opinions can be wrong.  When possible, examine past decisions to identify which characteristics were the real differentiators for success.  This helps clarify the criteria that are truly relevant in the decision, and which ones seem like common sense, but really have no bearing on success. 
  3. Identify Your Top Three Decision Criteria:   Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink offers many examples of those who found success trusting their gut in decision making.  However, the examples also show that those who are successful are experts who can sift through mountains of data and find the few key markers of success.  Before drowning in an ocean of data, consult your experts to identify the top three essential criteria, and focus your information gathering there.

At Action Management, we have been helping people make effective decisions for over thirty-five years.  If you would like to assure your leaders make decisions that swim instead of sink, just give us a call at 1-800-386-5611.  We would love to help.

1 Article regarding study results











Sign Up for Action Insights

Last Name
First Name


Creative Problem Solving | Problem Solving Training | Decision Making | Teaching Critical Thinking Skills | Critical Thinking