The U.S. Navy SEALs are unique within the U.S. military. But now, the SEALs are facing some truly enormous problems.

And their top commander, Rear Admiral Collin Green, says the entire issue comes down to a single word: "Leadership." 

Recent troubles have included headline-grabbing things like

  • the Navy SEAL who admitted during a court-martial that he killed a wounded prisoner,
  • a pair of SEALs charged in the death of an Army Green Beret, and
  • a SEAL team in Virginia that allegedly abused cocaine and other drugs.

Then, on Friday, Green fired the entire military leadership of SEAL Team 7: two relatively high-ranking officers and a top chief petty officer. This comes after one of its members allegedly committed a sexual assault, and one of its platoons was sent home from a deployment to Iraq -- reportedly due to "a booze-fueled July 4th party."

Here's what's happened, what the Navy SEALs are doing about it, and the key leadership lesson for leaders in any organization.

'Lack of action'

Firing top commanders like Green did Friday is rare in the U.S. military.

In fact, as retired Army Col. Paul Yingling wrote a few years back: "[A] private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

But the fact that he took that step is right in line with what we've heard from the admiral since these scandals started to become known. 

I've written before about the letter he sent to every SEAL commander in late July, in which he started with four words in boldface: "We have a problem."

He followed that up in late August with a three-page, single-spaced memo to all the major SEAL commanders that spells out his diagnosis: "a lack of action at all levels of Leadership."

The buck stops here in the Navy so to speak, and Green spells out a long list of a least a couple dozen very specific things he's ordering the SEALs to do to try to turn the culture around.

Much of it has to do with a "'back to basics' leadership approach," in his words. To use just one example, if you've seen photos or videos of Navy SEALs, you'll see a lot of tough-looking guys who often have long hair, beards, and uniforms with a lot of personalization, those days are over. 

Green says he's ordering "routine inspections" to make sure SEALs keep their hair short and look like they're in the Navy. Also, no more "unofficial unit insignia to include logos and patches.

A question of culture

So, where does this leave the Navy SEALs, and what are the lessons for leaders in other situations?

I think the common denominator is that a leader at the very top of any organization has one very powerful tool in his or her hands: the power to create and maintain culture.

If you rise high enough, you reach a point where you can't monitor everything that everyone below you is doing. You probably can't even know all of them. You can't be around them to inspire them to do the right thing.

So, you have to use other techniques.

You show them that they're part of something bigger than themselves. You instill pride. You get them to believe that their team's ethical standards are as important -- maybe even more so -- than the ones they bring themselves.

Green articulated this quite well in the last paragraph of the long memo he sent to his commanders last month:

"In our business, trust is earned by demonstration of competence and character. The responsibility of the Commanding Officer for his or her Command is absolute. I charge all of you to perform at the highest level and own your responsibility with unmitigated competence and character -- every time, everywhere. 

The mission is too important. The Nation needs us ... We own the problem and the solutions. We are part of an amazing community and legacy. We are a Family. I am confident we will lead ourselves to the highest standards as we right this ship and remain the Force our Nation expects."

Without building a culture, it's incredibly hard to build a team that you can lead anywhere worthwhile. Here's hoping Green and the Navy SEALs can make it work.