“You want a set up where it’s not a fair fight! You have to INNOVATE and ADAPT! At ALL times!”
“You have to embrace a rapidly changing battlefield!”
“No bad teams. Only bad leaders!”
John Schneider sat at attention, which the booming, barrel-chested, shaved-headed speaker before him demanded. The Seahawks general manager scribbled notes inside his training folder, the black one stamped with the words “EXTREME OWNERSHIP” and “LEAD. WIN.” He asked questions. He immersed himself in leadership like he was preparing for next week’s NFL Draft.
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Which he was. In his distinctive way.
This was no NFL seminar or league meeting. Schneider — the man who preaches constantly the need to get better, to learn and evolve for himself and the Seahawks — was in San Diego a few months ago. He was learning the art of combat leadership from two of the nation’s most accomplished Navy SEALs, veteran leaders from one of the pivotal battles of the Iraq War.
Schneider not only is the first NFL executive or coach but the first person in professional sports to go through Echelon Front’s muster, a deep dive into how Navy SEALs think, train and lead. The SEALs (Sea, Air and Land teams) are one of the world’s most intense, elite and effective special-operations forces.
Yes, Schneider’s unending quest for an edge in sustaining the Seahawks’ current run of five consecutive playoff appearances, two Super Bowls in four years and three NFC West titles in four seasons goes far beyond the combine. It goes beyond this week’s draft, free-agent signings and whether to trade Richard Sherman.
It goes to where Schneider doesn’t want you to know where he’s been.
“How did you know I was down there?” he asked, incredulously, when asked at last month’s NFL combine in Indianapolis about learning from the Navy SEALs in San Diego.
The SEALs wanted to know the same thing.
“How did you find out he was there?” Leif Babin asked. “We don’t publicize who attends.”
Babin is a former SEAL officer and Purple Heart winner. He co-founded Echelon Front, a small leadership consultant operation based administratively in Kent but operationally all over. Co-founder Jocko Willink is a former SEAL team commander, a squaw-jawed nail-chewer who rises each day at 0430 hours — and tweets to devotees to let them know it.
They are the trainers for Echelon Front’s traveling musters. The next one is early next month in New York.
These retired SEALs, Silver Star and Bronze Medal winners started Echelon Front in 2012. Willink and Babin were SEAL officers in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Their muster program is based on Willink’s and Babin’s “Extreme Leadership.” Their how-to book draws upon the successes, failures and lessons from their time leading one of the U.S. military’s most decorated units, SEAL Team 3, Task Unit Bruiser in the battle of Ramadi in 2006. That fight in Western Iraq ended with U.S. forces led by Willink’s and Babin’s SEALs stabilizing the chaotic capital city of volatile Anbar province.
Schneider was in San Diego to learn from them. The muster’s objective for participants is simple: “Teaching them the fundamentals of combat leadership they can then apply to their business and their life so they can lead — and win.”
As Babin told The News Tribune on Thursday from New York: “These things are simple. But they are not easy.”
His assessment of Schneider?
“He’s brilliant,” Babin said. “Very intelligent.”
The Seahawks’ leader was one of 341 leaders at the muster — men and women, entrepreneurs and self-starters, in various walks of life and business. Active-duty members of the Army, Air Force and Marines were in attendance. Jiujitsu black belts were there.
“A heart surgeon there got up and had a great question and comment about figuring out how to calm yourself,” Schneider said.
“I mean, I took like 12 pages of notes. It was really cool.”
The muster’s participants came to San Diego from five countries, 42 states and 56 industries. Many got up in the dark and went outside the Omni San Diego hotel for physical training at 4:45 a.m. with Willink and Babin, who had already completed the workout. They began at 3:30. It included, in the Facebook words of attendee Ed McGee, “burpees and nausea.”
“I’m not sure John joined us for those 0445 workouts,” Babin said, laughing.
After that fun, the former SEALs talked of adapting to missions changed and risks magnified. Of molding in with and learning from the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, which had been on the ground in Ramadi before they were, instead of taking over as the Army soldiers expected. Of having to transport Iraqi soldiers to safety during the more-dangerous daytime, opposite of normal SEALs operations; the Iraqis were too limited and in some ways inept to safely move tactically at night.
“Those guys are awesome,” Schneider said. “Overcoming adversity. Leading up and down the chain of command, as well as across. Just the adversity on a daily basis that you can go through, and how those guys dealt with it. How they plan. How they strategize.”
Schneider is a legend among Seahawks players for acts such as ripping off his shirt and flexing with a WWE-like title belt after a big road win a couple years ago. In San Diego, he was wearing a camouflage-colored T-shirt with “DOMINATE YOUR BATTLEFIELD” and the “Laws of combat: Cover and Move; Prioritize and Execute; and Simple” on the back.
As you can probably see by now, Schneider wasn’t listening to punch-the-clock speakers there for cool honorariums and then cocktail hour.
Willink spent 20 years as a Navy SEAL. He was enlisted, got promoted and transitioned to an officer, then SEAL commander in Iraq. He won a Silver Star for gallantry there, the third-highest military honor for valor in combat. Willink also won a Bronze Star for his leadership in Iraq. He retired from the military in 2010.
Babin graduated from the Naval Academy and served in the Navy for 13 years, nine with the SEALs. He was a platoon commander in Willink’s SEAL Task Force Bruiser. He planned and led operations in the SEALs’ seven-month fight in Ramadi. He earned the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars in addition to his Purple Heart before retiring in 2011.
You can’t get that expertise at the NFL owners meetings.
Schneider hooked up with the SEALs to improved the Seahawks through the team’s vice president for community relations, Mike Flood. Flood knew former SEAL Operator 2nd Class Ryan Job. A 1999 graduate of Issaquah High School, Job attended the University of Washington for three years, then enlisted in the Navy months after Sept. 11, 2001. In 2004, he completed the challenging SEAL training, and eventually joined SEAL Team 3.
While under Willink’s command in Ramadi in the summer of 2006, an enemy sniper shot Job in the face. He was permanently blinded and had to medically retire from the Navy. Flood then had him as a guest on the sidelines before a Seahawks game at CenturyLink Field.
Four years after Ramadi, after a series of complicated surgeries, Job died. When he died in the spring of 2010, his wife of three years, Kelly, was pregnant with their first child.
To mark Job’s legacy, Willink and Babin visited Schneider and his team at their Renton headquarters. A bond formed between SEALs and Seahawks. That bond led Willink and Babin to invite Schneider to San Diego for Echelon Front’s Muster 001.
That was in late October. It was so important to Schneider that he left the Seahawks for two days just before Seattle’s overtime tie at Arizona on Oct. 23. During the muster, Schneider was excusing himself to take calls from team headquarters.
It was days after Sherman, Schneider’s star cornerback, erupted on the sidelines at defensive coordinator Kris Richard over a blown coverage and touchdown allowed in a victory over Atlanta. Safety Kam Chancellor was about to miss a second consecutive game with a pulled hamstring. Tight end Jimmy Graham was missing practice with a hip injury and the Seahawks were determining whether he could play.
“I know he’s a busy man,” Babin said. “It was awesome to have him.”
Babin said the SEALs also learned some things from Schneider.
“He gave us some pointers of how we can improve,” he said. “Like in our question-and-answer session, enabling more people to address more questions, to get even more interactive.
“The biggest thing we learned from John was no matter how successful you’ve been — and look at him, he’s won a Super Bowl, how successful he’s been the last four, five years — he still is striving to learn and get better. That’s a testament to being the best.
“I’ve been around lots of leaders. And the best leaders have that ability to look in the mirror and give a brutally honest assessment. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.
“And John’s doing it.”
What did Schneider learn from that self-assessment, from these battle-tested, barking SEALs?
“Some of it was, ‘OK, I need to handle this a little bit better,’ ” he said. “Or it was reinforcement of, ‘You know what? We do a pretty good job in this area.’
“We can always do better. But it was one of those things where it was very much just great people who are just striving for excellence.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle