The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple (But Not Easy) Admiral by William H. McRaven – Here are my six Lessons and Takeaways

Wisdom of the BullfrogWell, for thousands of years militaries have relied on mottoes, creeds, parables, and stories to inspire, to motivate, and to guide leaders and followers alike. These sayings serve to reinforce certain behaviors. …They also provide a memory prompt…

In this book I have collected eighteen of these sayings that have guided me throughout my career: mottoes, parables, creeds, and stories that have served me well when I was starting a new assignment or had a particularly difficult leadership challenge.

The Army Rangers’ Sua Sponte (Of Your Own Accord); the British Special Air Service motto, Who Dares Wins; and the SEAL mantra, The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday; all these sayings have a storied history that drove leaders at the time to make certain profound decisions. …they are words born of experience, trial by fire, and most written in blood.   

We have never stopped raising the bar and trying to be the best.

Admiral William H. McRaven, The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple (But Not Easy)


There is no shortage of leadership books.

There are good ones; mediocre ones; a few bad ones.

There are all sorts of leadership “genres.”  I am partial to Servant Leadership, a term coined by Robert Greenleaf decades ago.

I think I am safe in saying that the following is some of the accepted best thinking about leadership:

  • leaders needs to be able to see the future challenges and opportunities and threats…
  • leaders need to rally the people on the team and in the organization to produce the desired results.
  • leaders need to be out and about among his/her people, listening, challenging, with empathy, and concern and care.
  • leaders need to be people of integrity; trustworthy.

Since leaders fail in so many ways, so very often (alas), most good leadership books remind leaders who they should be, what they should be, how they should be…

So, if you ask me, “Randy, what is the one leadership book I need to read?”, my first response is “there is no one book.”  There are many good, needed ones.  Like:  Encouraging the Heart by Kouzes and Poser, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman, Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Radical Candor by Kim Scott… The list gets long in a hurry.  I would say that the best leaders should always be reading their next leadership book… (I put this list together a while back: A More Comprehensive Reading list for leaders – So many good books; so much to learn.)

But now I have a new book to add to the list, and it may be this new book that I now recommend as my suggestion for “if you have time to read only one leadership book, read this one.”

It is the new book by Admiral William H. McRaven, The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple (But Not Easy).  It’s not that he says anything especially new.  But he takes 18 key leadership lessons, and writes them in pretty short chapters, telling good stories illustrating the principles, with great quotes to begin each chapter, calling all leaders to do their job as leaders.  It is a very good, very accessible, book.

And, because he puts integrity and honor front and center, I think that section needs to be read, and re-read, and re-read…

I presented my synopsis of this terrific book at the May, 2023 First Friday Book Synopsis. As I always do in my synopses, I began with What is the point? of this book.  Here is my answer for this book: Good leadership is rare, and hard to come by.  But it can be learned.  This book can be your teacher. 

And I ask Why is this book worth our time?; Why this book matters!  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – This book is a reflection/memoir on the most important leadership lessons learned, written by a seasoned, accomplished leader.

#2 – This book is a gold mine of stories of successful leadership stories; and also some stories of failures worth heeding.

#3 – This book is an illustration of clear and simple communication.  View it as a model for how you can and should communicate.

I always include a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are a few of the best of the best from this book:

Carl von Clausewitz, the great nineteenth-century general who wrote the consummate book On War, once said that “everything in war is simple, but the simple things are difficult.”  

The most tragic thing in the world is a man of genius who is not a man of honor. — George Bernard Shaw 

Legend has it that the phrase “Death Before Dishonor” began with the Greek Stoics who were prepared to die rather than compromise their values.  …And in modern times, the United States Marine Corps has unofficially adopted the saying “Death Before Dishonor” after legendary Marine sergeant John Basilone had the motto tattooed on his left arm.   

The Cadet Honor Code…“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” …Below the Honor Code is the mission of the United States Military Academy. The mission of West Point is not to produce Pattonesque geniuses, four-star generals, or presidents of the United States. The mission is to produce “leaders of character.” And the Honor Code provides the foundation of that character.   

In 2005, the modern SEALs codified that standard of conduct in the Navy SEAL Ethos, which reads in part: I serve with honor on and off the battlefield… Uncompromising integrity is my standard… My word is my bond.

The Army Ranger Creed says, “I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of my Ranger Regiment.”

Similarly, the Green Berets’ creed says “I pledge to uphold the honor and integrity [of the Green Beret] legacy in all that I am—in all that I do.”

But of course, it’s not just the military. The Girl Scout Law says, “I will do my best to be honest and fair…[ and] make the world a better place.” The Boy Scouts’ oath says, “On my honor I will do my best… and [be] morally straight.”

The final paragraph of the Hippocratic Oath says, “So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully… gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate.” 

{Note:  I sent my handout for this synopsis to my brothers, and Sid, a retired Air Force Colonel, sent me this: The USAF Code of Conduct reads: We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, (so help me God).}

But more often than not, that lack of integrity, doing wrong instead of right, can manifest itself in a toxic work culture, a failed business, or a personal tragedy.  …If you violate your oath, your code of conduct, the basic decency with which you should live your life and run your business, then eventually you will lose the respect of the men and women you serve, and the opposite becomes your fate.  

In the simplest terms it follows the West Point Honor Code: Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those that do.  …Be honest with your workforce, your customers, and the public. Be fair in your business dealings. Follow the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you.   

Being a person of high integrity is what separates the great leaders from the commonplace.   

President Obama had given Leon Panetta the task of capturing or killing bin Laden. …It was the result of years of working together, years of building personal and professional relationships, years of earning each other’s trust. …And even when we had interagency squabbles, of which there were many, the CIA believed they could trust me and they could trust my team.

The day you no longer believe you have something to prove, the day you no longer believe you must give it your all, the day you think you are entitled to special treatment, the day you think all your hard days are behind you, is the day you are no longer the right leader for the job. 

In the three weeks leading up to the bin Laden raid, the Team spent 75 percent of their time planning the mission. …the president remarked that while the confidence level on bin Laden being in the compound was only 50 percent, he had 100 percent confidence in the SEALs, helo crews, and intelligence professionals who were conducting the mission. 

“But I hold you and your SEALs to a higher standard. And I expect you, as their leader, to do the same. Are we clear?” I hold you and your SEALs to a higher standard. Those words resonated in my head for the rest of my career.

Mounted on a large white horse, with full military regalia on his uniform and two immense pistols holstered at his side, General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben rode into Valley Forge in February of 1778. One soldier recalled von Steuben’s arrival as though it was “the fabled God of War himself.” …Soon after his arrival, Washington made von Steuben the Continental Army’s inspector general. …corruption and graft were rampant as soldiers received and then sold their muskets and other equipment. …Within days, von Steuben had initiated inspections of the troops, their tents, their rifles, and their combat equipment. …And during the winter of 1778, von Steuben wrote the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States—a document that has been the foundation for the American military since it was first published.

In their insightful book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind point out that a number of senior employees within the organization knew that something was wrong, but the company was making millions, so they let it slide. …“The after-the-fact rationalizations [by the accused executives] were strikingly similar to the mind-set that brought about the Enron disaster in the first place. The arguments were narrow and rules-based, legalistic in the hairsplitting sense of the word.”

And then, in my synopses, I include principles, points, key elements of the book.  Here is much of what I included in this synopsis.  (Note:  anything in italics is directly from the book):

  • William McRaven
  • Bullfrog1Thirty-four years after I started BUD/S training, I would be anointed as the Bull Frog1—the longest-serving frogman and Navy SEAL on active duty.
  • An observation – this book delivers! — Simple; not easy, but simple…
  • short chapters; almost a “daily reading” length chapters… Buy this book, and read it a chapter every few days…
  • Definition – What is leadership?
  • In its simplest form, leadership is “accomplishing a task with the people and resources you have while maintaining the integrity of your institution.”
  • But leadership is not just about getting the job done. It is also about maintaining or advancing the reputation of your institution. …If as a leader you fail the institution you are leading, then you have failed—period.
  • As a leader you must take actions to build a plan, communicate its intent, inspect its progress, hold people (and yourself) accountable. Together, qualities and actions are the building blocks of great leaders.
  • But true honor—doing the right thing for the right reasons—is the foundation of great leadership.

I seldom simply follow the chapters, as they are, in my synopses.  But I did in this synopsis.  My synopsis handout includes each chapter, with key insights.  Here are a number of the chapters, with brief insights:

Chapter One: Death Before Dishonor  — (Be a Person of Integrity)

  • Make no mistake about it, if you want to be a great leader you must have a personal code of conduct that provides an anchor for your decisions and your actions. …An anchor that tethers you to a good place of return when you go astray. And most of us will go astray at some point. We are all human. We make poor decisions. We act stupidly. We have regrets. But nevertheless, we should all strive—and strive mightily—to be honorable.
  • Before you can master any of the other axioms of wisdom, you must first strive to be men and women of honor and integrity.

Chapter Two: You Can’t Surge Trust – (Be Trustworthy)

  • “We won’t have to spend time getting to know each other. Because when it hits the fan, we won’t have time to build trust.”

Chapter Three: When in Command, Command – (Be confident in yourself)

  • Commanders are expected to make the tough decision. To act with purpose. To be confident and lead from the front. To accept the challenge and steel yourself for the rough waters ahead. A commander must command. Command the situation. Command the troops. Command your fears. Take command.  

Chapter Four: We All Have Our Frog Floats – (Have a little humility)

  • Sooner or later we all have to do things we don’t want to do. But if you’re going to do it, then do it right. Build the best damn Frog Float you can!” And there it was. “Build the best damn Frog Float you can!”
  • Asked to do those menial tasks that no one else wanted, those tasks that seemed beneath the “dignity of my rank.” …I found, in my career, that if you took pride in the little jobs, people would think you worthy of the bigger jobs.

Chapter Five: The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday – (Demonstrate that you have stamina)

  • “If you think the hard part is over, you’re mistaken.”  

Chapter Eight: Who Dares Wins – (Be prepared to take risks)

  • Daring greatly does not mean taking unnecessary risks. Daring greatly does mean having the boldness to push the envelope, to take advantage of an opportunity where others would recoil at the peril.

Chapter Nine: Hope Is Not a Strategy – (Do the detailed planning necessary for success)

  • Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan. – Coach Tom Landry           

Chapter Ten: No Plan Survives First Contact with the Enemy – (Have a Plan B)

  • Just because you made a good plan doesn’t mean that’s what’s gonna happen. — Taylor Swift

Chapter Thirteen: Troop the Line – (Listen to your employees)

  • All the great generals have at some point trooped the line. …In the Navy, every morning the sailors and Marines would gather on the fantail or the flight deck of the ship to receive the daily word.
  • In all cases, there is a deep understanding that as an officer you need to get out among the troops. You need to confirm that the senior officer’s orders are being followed, but you also need to ensure the troops see their leader as often as possible.

Chapter Fourteen: Expect What You Inspect – (The quality of your work will depend on the quality of your oversight)

  • Every military in the world understands the significance of an inspection. …too often, in the corporate world, we give it less attention than we should.

Chapter Sixteen: When in Doubt, Overload – (Work hard to overcome your shortfalls)

  • Forty years of clearing beaches from Okinawa to Normandy to Inchon to Vietnam had taught the frogmen one very important lesson: Whenever you were in doubt about the amount of explosives to use—always overload. Always put more energy, more force, more power into the solution than seemed necessary.
  • I got up earlier, worked longer, went out on more tactical operations, studied the battlefield incessantly, and slept a lot less, and then, when the next opportunity presented itself, I was ready. …Hard work creates opportunities. It’s that simple.

Chapter Seventeen: Can You Stand Before the Long Green Table? – (Be accountable for your actions)

  • Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses. — George Washington Carver
  • Is it ethical, legal, and moral? Ethical — does it follow the rules? Legal — does it follow the law? And moral — does it follow what you know to be right? 

Chapter Eighteen: Always Have a Swim Buddy – (Have a partner in your leadership journey)

  • When parachuting, it is your swim buddy who checks your parachute before you jump. …You learned it early in SEAL training, that you never did anything, at any time, without a swim buddy, someone who could bail you out of a tough situation. …your swim buddy was your protection, your conscience, your friend, and frequently your salvation.
  • While I have often said that a leader “is not allowed to have a bad day,” that pertains only to their demeanor in public. However, every leader does have bad days. Every leader does need someone to talk to. Every leader must find someone they can trust. …Call them wingmen, copilots, first mates, shotgun riders, Skipper and Gilligan, Thelma and Louise, Barney and Fred, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, partners—call them whatever you like, but without a good swim buddy you will be destined to make bad decisions, you will be confronted with the difficulties of life alone, you will sometimes wallow in self-pity, and nothing you do will be as fulfilling.

And, in the book, Admiral McRaven includes his own “It’s Simple” recap of each chapter.  Here are just a few of his own recaps:

Chapter One: Death Before Dishonor

  • It’s Simple: 1. Be fair and honorable in your business dealings. It’s the only way that you and your employees can leave a legacy to be proud of. 2. Never lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. The culture of your organization starts with you. 3. Own your lapses in judgment. It happens to everyone. Correct the problem and return to being a person of good character. 

Chapter Four: We All Have Our Frog Floats  

  • It’s Simple: 1. Be humble in your demeanor and your expectations. 2. Accept the fact that you will be asked to do jobs that are beneath your status. Do them to the best of your ability. 3. Measure the strength of your employees by their willingness to do the little tasks and do them well

Chapter Seven: Sua Sponte

  • It’s Simple: 1. Foster a culture of action, allowing the rank and file to take the initiative and fix problems that need addressing. 2. Accept the fact that this will lead to zealousness and the occasional screwup. This overenthusiasm is better than a culture of inaction. 3. Praise those who attempt to solve problems on their own, even if the results are not as expected. 

Chapter Ten: No Plan Survives First Contact with the Enemy    

  • It’s Simple: 1. Always consider the worst-case scenario and plan accordingly. 2. Test the plan to ensure everyone in the organization knows how to react when things go poorly. 3. Be prepared. Murphy was an optimist.

Chapter Twelve: A Shepherd Should Smell Like His Sheep         

  • It’s Simple: 1. Share the hardships with your employees. You will gain their respect and learn about yourself as a leader. 2. Share the camaraderie. Let the employees see you having fun (within reason). They want to know that their leader is human as well. 3. Listen to the rank and file. They have solutions to most of the problems you struggle with.

Chapter Thirteen: Troop the Line

  • It’s Simple: 1. Get out of your office and talk to the employees at the far end of the chain of command. 2. Find an opportunity to solve small but seemingly intractable problems. 3. Ensure your senior staff know that these “little problems” can have major effects on morale.

Chapter Eighteen: Always Have a Swim Buddy

  • It’s Simple: 1. Find a person you can trust implicitly. Be prepared to lean on them in times of great stress. 2. Accept both their support and criticism with equal grace. 3. Be a swim buddy to others. Someone out there needs you!

And here are my six Lessons and Takeaways:

#1 – Lead and manage by walking around, by showing up, even fully sharing the “grunt” work…

#2 – Morale really, really matters — Every leader understands that nothing is more important to the success of a mission than the morale of the troops. But leaders often misunderstand the nature of morale. Morale is not just about the employees feeling good, it is about the employees feeling valued. …It is about the troops believing that their leader is listening to their concerns.

#3 – Something will go wrong. Plan for something to grow wrong.  Have a Plan B; and a Plan C; and…

#4 – Always pay attention to the need to be a person of integrity.

#5 – Learn to listen to everybody on the team; people in every position on the team. And, then, do listen…

#6 – Work hard! On every menial task, to every grand vision and plan.

This is an exceptionable book. If we read it, heed it, follow it…if all leaders did the same…we would have more people of integrity, and more successful organizations throughout the land.


You can purchase our synopses presentations from the buy synopses tab at the top of this page.  On that page, you can search by book title. And click here for our newest additions.

My synopsis of The Wisdom of the Bullfrog will be available soon.

Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page synopsis handout, plus the audio recording of my presentation delivered at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.

And, please check out some “bundles” of synopses, arranged by key categories, for your own self-paced learning, at my companion site,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *