This is a story about culture, leadership, and the U.S. Navy SEALs.

Because when it comes to prestige and awe among the U.S. armed forces, there's probably no group like the SEALs

This is the special operations group that killed Osama bin Laden, that served as the backbone for many dangerous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan -- even Vietnam -- and that gave us one of the most respected top officers in recent military history.

But lately the SEALs have been facing some immense problems. A few examples:

  • A Navy SEAL corpsman (medic), Corey Scott, admitted in court that he killed a wounded prisoner in Iraq. 
  • Two Navy SEALs have been charged in the death of a U.S. Army Green Beret soldier.
  • An entire SEAL team was sent home from Iraq recently because of allegations of sexual assault and illegal alcohol use.
  • A Navy investigation found members of yet another SEAL team abused cocaine and other drugs, according to CNN

Nobody likes the idea that the SEALs aren't living up to the ideal that people have for them -- least of all the SEALs themselves. Add up all those bullet points, however, and it's a situation that almost any leader would find challenging.

That's why it was so interesting this week to read reports of the letter that the admiral currently in charge of the SEALs sent to all of his subordinate commanders. 

It starts with four short words, typed in boldface, which are perhaps the only thing a true leader can say in this situation: "We have a problem."

As CNN reported:

Rear Adm. Collin Green has given commanders until August 7 to detail the problems they see and provide recommendations on how they will ensure troops are engaging in ethical and professional behavior.

The letter -- dated July 25 and exclusively obtained by CNN -- comes in the wake of several high profile incidents of alleged misbehavior by SEALs.

"I don't know yet if we have a culture problem, I do know that we have a good order and discipline problem that must be addressed immediately," Green said.

You want your people to take pride in who they are and what they do. But here, I think Admiral Green's letter does at least two key things:

  1. Admits that a big problem exists, and demonstrates, literally in boldface, that it's a priority for the top boss
  2. Solicits input and sets a deadline by which he expects to hear back from the commanders below him about what they see and what they're doing about it

Anyone who cares about America and respects our armed forces will be rooting for the SEALs here.

But that doesn't just mean blind admiration. It means tough love and respect. Because an organization in which substance abuse, sexual assault, and unlawful killing are accepted as a cost of doing business is not one that most Americans would hold so high -- even if it were an effective military force.

It's impossible to solve a problem in your personal life if you can't admit that the problem exists. And that's why I'm impressed that no matter what else happens, Admiral Green's first step here is the right one.

"We have a problem." Any solution can only flow from that realization. And it's a leader's job to share it.

Published on: Aug 2, 2019
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