The Wisdom of the Bullfrog Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The Wisdom of the Bullfrog breaks down 18 sayings, mottos, and parables used in the military, which helped admiral William H. McRaven throughout his four-decade Navy SEAL career to lead and inspire himself and others.

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The Wisdom of the Bullfrog Summary

During the US-Afghanistan war in 2009, Navy Admiral William H. McRaven read an article on a plane en route to the battlefield. In it, two university professors explained how the USA could “easily” win. “Just build roads,” they claimed. “Connect all the villages, districts, and provinces, and the local population can rally together and defeat the Taliban!”

McRaven had to laugh. “Well, no kidding!” Of course, the military had thought of that solution. “It’s just that when people are shooting at you and trying to blow you up—it’s hard to build roads.” Leadership, McRaven believes, is the same: “Everything in leadership is simple, it’s just that the simplest things are difficult.”

Anyone can say inspiring things, but it’s hard to take inspiring actions when the going gets tough. “But as difficult as leadership is, it is not complicated,” McRaven continues. In The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple, he defines it as follows: “Leadership is accomplishing a task with the people and resources you have while maintaining the integrity of your institution.”

How can you live this kind of leadership? In the rest of his New York Times Bestseller, McRaven breaks down 18 sayings, mottos, and parables that have helped him do so over a nearly 40-year, highly decorated career in the US armed forces.

Let’s look at 3 of them in detail to help you succeed and inspire others:

  1. You can’t generate trust on command when you need it. By the time you want to rely on it, it must already be there.
  2. The US Army Rangers’ motto of self-initiative could do wonders for your career.
  3. Think about how well you could justify your actions, if pressed to do so. It will help you make better decisions.

Let’s see what wisdom the bullfrog has to share with us!

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Lesson 1: Build trust slowly and steadily, because there’s no red emergency button to quickly create it when you need it.

I first learned about bullfrogs during the Simpsons episode “Bart vs. Australia.” After Bart accidentally introduces one into the Australian ecosystem, they soon become a plague. Puzzled by the animal, an uninformed store clerk calls them “chazzwazzers,” or “sheep creatures” in the German voiceover.

In the Navy, however, the title of “Bull Frog” goes to “the longest, continuously serving active-duty SEAL.” Even a year before he received the award, however, McRaven’s reputation already preceded him. When he met the new CIA director Leon Panetta in 2010, Panetta introduced him to the senior CIA officers — except he knew them all already.

Since he had served with many of the directors throughout his career, Panetta knew he could trust McRaven right off the bat. “Because when it hits the fan, we won’t have time to build trust,” he said. About a year later, it did. The CIA finally identified the compound in which Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, was hiding. Panetta called in McRaven to plan the operation, and a SEAL team assassinated bin Laden in May 2011. 

“If they do not trust you, they will not follow you,” McRaven writes. “It takes time to build trust, but it is time well spent if you intend to lead effectively.” We have a saying in Germany: “You always meet twice in life.” Do the right thing, and people will remember you. Build trust before you need it, because by the time you do, it’ll be too late to pull it out of thin air.

Lesson 2: Embrace the Army Rangers’ “Sua Sponte” motto — “of your own accord — to thrive in your career.

Most of the best things in my business have happened because I did something I thought was needed but that no one gave me permission to do. This summary is a perfect example: I didn’t ask McRaven for his permission to write it. I just think you deserve one, so I’m trying to do the best job I can and hope if McRaven ever sees it, he’ll appreciate the effort.

“Sua sponte” is Latin for “of one’s own accord.” It’s also the motto of the US Army Rangers. No one lived it better than Ralph Puckett, McRaven suggests, a lieutenant who charged the Chinese in a battle for a hill during the Korean War. Thanks to Puckett’s “reckless” sprinting across the battlefield, his comrades could spot enemy shooter positions and take them out.

But taking initiative can be much simpler, too. During an award ceremony for a disabled veteran, the microphone was too high for the honorary to speak from his wheelchair. A young SEAL sprinted to the front, adjusted the microphone, saluted, and returned to his chair. “Sir, something had to be done and no one else was doing it. So I thought it was up to me,” he later told McRaven.

Don’t wait for the world to nudge you into action. Take initiative. See what needs doing, and do it of your own accord. Your friends, family, and career will thank you for it.

Lesson 3: Ask yourself if you could “stand before the long green table” to see if your decisions are strategically sound and morally justified.

General Billy Mitchell was a decorated pilot during World War I and strong advocate of more air power for the US military. Back then, warfare was mostly naval. But despite proving that planes could sink ships with bombs, Mitchell was court-martialed.

A few years later, history would prove him right. President Roosevelt acted on his ideas, and in World War II, planes were crucial to the Allied victory. In 1947, the Air Force was established, but Mitchell had still been found guilty — and died in 1936.

Because such serious military proceedings tend to happen in rooms with big, green-felt-covered tables, McRaven kept asking himself throughout his career: “Can you stand before the long green table?” The idea is simple: “If you can’t make a good case to the officers sitting around the long green table, then you should reconsider your actions.”

The question helps him assess whether his choices are both strategically and morally sound, McRaven explains. You can break it into 3 smaller questions:

  1. Is what I’m doing ethical — does it follow the rules?
  2. Is it legal — does it follow the law?
  3. Is it moral — does it follow what you know to be right?

Sometimes, you’ll face serious consequences for your actions. Make sure you can live with them, and even if things don’t go your way, you’ll have no regrets.

The Wisdom of the Bullfrog Review

The Wisdom of the Bullfrog is an inspiring and actionable book from a man who’s walked the walk. Each chapter is short, filled with stories, and comes with 3 actionable takeaways at the end. McRaven’s other books Make Your Bed and The Hero Code are also great!

Who would I recommend our The Wisdom of the Bullfrog summary to?

The 22-year-old business student who struggles with group assignments, the 39-year-old first-time manager, who has to lead a team but doesn’t know how, and anyone who wants some inspiring stories from behind the scenes of history.

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This book has an average rating of 4.2 based on 5 votes.

Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!