A Navy Seal’s Lesson in Performance (and Rest)

A Navy Seal’s Lesson in Performance (and Rest) 1024 606 The Body Corporate

I was honored to watch a retired US Navy Seal at work with a young trainee. The senior officer was taking the aspirant seal through a legendary military institution – the obstacle course, or “O-Course”. The experience was inspiring in many ways. This master soldier taught me a lesson that is highly relevant for all organizational leaders.

The O-course consists of 21 challenging physical obstacles that soldiers must climb over, under, or through during physical training. They must perform at speed. Apart from strength, balance and stamina, the novice learns specific techniques that enable competence at each task. The aspiring recruit was working hard to master the difficult challenges. Towards the end of the course, he struggled on one of the obstacles, a climbing wall. His exhausted fingers failed as he carried his muscular frame across the wall. He slipped and fell several times. He was determined to get it right. As he dusted himself off again to start over, the senior officer intervened, “wait, we can come back to this, you’re reaching the point of muscle failure”. It struck me that this might be the strongest, bravest person I knew; yet he was instructing his young charge to rest.

This started me thinking about muscle fatigue. As a scientist, I knew that extreme exercise erodes contractile muscle strength. It is possible to reach a point of “failure” where attempts at contraction produce meaningless responses from the muscle. Fatigue comes either when nerves fail to send messages to the muscles to contract, or from the muscles themselves. Nerve fatigue is sometimes a problem in novices, but the main cause of failure is metabolic fatigue of the muscle itself, especially in trained athletes like this young man. The muscle either runs out of fuel, or is impeded by the accumulation of metabolites.

Human organizations have muscles too; the workers that make things happen. Their concerted efforts move products, ideas and value through the system. Like the muscles that help us on the O-course, corporate muscles respond to signals that instruct their activity, and they burn energy to do their work. They can, and do, fatigue. Like the human body, fatigue is seldom the result of nerve failure. If you’ve ever worked downstream in an organization, you will know that the voices of senior managers requesting more effort are seldom silent. Often, especially towards the end of the year, your ability to respond becomes muted. The force you exert with each subsequent management request diminishes. If the nerve signals continue unabated, fatigue becomes failure. We run out of energy, and accumulate toxic metabolites that interfere with our efficiency and effectiveness.

Let’s go back to my inspiration on the O-Course. It was moving to watch the retired warrior’s athleticism across a terrain designed to impede progress. I was also inspired by the young man’s determination and courage. We didn’t know at the time that he had fractured a rib half way through the course. We thought he was grey from fatigue. It was pain and fatigue!

The most profound inspiration came from watching a leader who understands fatigue and failure intimately. More than this, he knows that the human body can produce herculean efforts, even when you think it has passed the point of “failure”. Navy seals trust their bodies to deliver super-human performance under the direst circumstances. Their legendary BUDS training, and exacting operational conditions teach them that we all have immense reserves, and train to access these reserves. Despite this, he was the one to suggest that the young man take a break. He had watched his trainee push himself deep into the zone of muscle fatigue. At exactly the right time, he paused. He understood the elasticity of human resolve. He appreciated the demotivation of failure, and the motivation of rest and subsequent success.

Sometimes we drive ourselves towards exhaustion. Sometimes we drive others towards fatigue and failure. As we approach the end of 2014, I hope that you will join me in learning from one of the strongest and bravest men in the world. Make sure your employees and colleagues rest when they need it. I wish you a peaceful holiday season.

Have fun,



(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at Body-Corporate if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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