The Wisdom of the Bullfrog:leadership made simple (but not easy)

Date Reviewed
June 12th 2023

'The Wisdom of the Bullfrog' is a catchy title. 'Bullfrog' is a military nickname given the author and it means the longest serving 'U.S. navy seal'. For those who have not watched enough U.S. military movies, “seals” are the elite of the navy with the unique feature of operating in the marine situations.

The bullfrog is retired admiral William McCraven and he has written four other books all based on his military experience of more than 30 years.

This 200-page easier reader has the title extension 'leadership made simple (but not easy)'. One of his theses is that it is comparatively simple to know what is the best and the correct thing to do, but often hard to do with conflicting choices and demands.

His wisdom centres around doing the legal, ethical and moral thing tempered by empathy for how it effects others. “Honour” comes up often.

Each of his 18 chapters/lessons, “sayings” as he calls them, is barely 10 pages long and punctuated with a summary of the key elements of that chapter. So an easy convenient study, if that is your need.

To make them exciting the lessons are embedded in stories from his time in the military, which includes the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.

Much of his prose is couched in the language and codes of military people and not exclusively U.S.

And while he comes from a military background, he emphasizes that the lessons he has learned are applicable to leading in any situation or organization.

Before reading the book I had seen the admiral interviewed by journalistic superstars Fareed Zakaria and Christiane Amanpour. With this introduction, somehow I expected a little more from the book.

But as I mentioned it is a short, well constructed easy to read with good information, much I have heard before.

He talks about “owning your mistakes” and learning from them. He talks about “trust” as emanating from a pairing of “character” and “competence”. Trust is maintained by accomplishing what you promise.

Be confident in yourself since having been placed in a situation you can and are expected to manage. While being thoughtful, also be decisive and bring passion for the mission, however modest it might seem.

And an especially useful idea is not losing the sense that you have something to prove everyday. The hard days are never really behind you and, in leading, that is a crucial mindset. Stamina, energy and resilience are needed to meet the challenges.

He also emphasizes communicating to the people being led. This especially with goals, objectives, expectations, values and intentions.

And another thing that might seem a bit counter to the military protocol is “is do what needs to be done, without being told to do so.” It creates a sense of empowerment in people being led. Under this regime ,expect mistakes, but they are part of learning.

And another remarkable idea “it is better to err on the side of daring than the side of caution” “Who dares wins” is a motto of the British second world war Special Air Service (SAS). And boldness inspires those being led. However, before the bold action, he emphasizes, must be extensive planning with backup contingencies.

The leader must be able to focus on only two or three major issues and those being led must know and understand what those are.

'Hope' is an energizing force but has to be supported with a sound strategy , detailed plan and delegation of responsibility, he adds.

Backups, especially for worst case scenario, are necessary because circumstances and situations may change suddenly.

Set high standards, hold people accountable and give feedback acknowledging standards met.

McCraven also puts importance on leaders going into the regions where their people work and acknowledging the conditions they work under. Go on the factory floor, so to speak. And talk to the people, sharing their hardships. And sometimes that is where the “small” problems can be seen and solved. Maintaining and enhancing morale is a goal.

McCraven favours the use of more military type inspections of elements of business as a way of enhancing discipline and morale and showing that details matter. And as the leader be there. Often inspections in these institutions start and end with audits without dealing with other elements.

It is important for the leader to work hard and be seen to be working hard. And he speaks of this as a daily goal, since the hardest day is the one ahead. He does not believe that resting on laurels applies to anyone, including, and maybe especially, leaders.

Decisions should always be considered against ethical, legal and moral values. He says right and wrong are not ambiguous. War does complicate these issues.

He spoke about having a “swim buddy” a navy seal term for somebody who 'has your back'. And learn to accept both their support and criticism and learn to lean on them in stressful times.

Two key things needed in leadership are “good character and competence”. A good leader also needs a “little swagger, a healthy confidence that you are the right person for the job”.

Risk taking is essential, but “based on extensive planning, preparation and proper execution”.

He calls leadership “difficult but not complicated”.