ETHOS Magazine essay: On Becoming a (good) SEAL

The latest Naval Special Warfare Ethos Magazine is out, and it includes my essay On Becoming a (good) SEAL. The entire issue can be seen here.

My essay faces a great essay by Capt Bob Gusentine providing guidance to future Senior Enlisted Advisors. There are a number of really good articles in this issue, including articles on: Dan Gnossen, one of my son’s teammates on the Navy Triathlon Team who lost both his legs in Afghanistan, now training for the Para Olympics; ‘throwbots’ that SEALs use in urban warfare; Tactical Yoga; Cultural Engagement Teams; and how a SEAL Chief is dealing with cancer. This magazine reflects very well on the Naval Special Warfare community, and I’m proud to make a humble contribution. My essay is below:
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Navy SEAL photo downloadsTo avoid the awkward “SEAL or SWCC” construction, and because my background is primarily in the SEAL world, l address SEALs in this essay. But nearly all of what I write applies to SWCCs, (or SF, or EOD, or other professions.)

What does it mean to ‘become a SEAL?’

Technically speaking, one becomes a SEAL by graduating from BUD/S-SQT and being awarded the Trident. In the eyes of the public, if you wear the Trident, you are a SEAL, and you are awesome, deserving full association with all that has become part of the SEAL tradition, reputation, and legacy. But newly pinned SEALs soon learn that the thrill of that achievement can be short lived. The only easy day was yesterday….

On reporting to a Team, the newly pinned SEAL learns that graduating from BUD/S-SQT just barely makes him a SEAL; he still has to prove himself to his teammates, to earn his reputation and to become a SEAL in their eyes. He quickly learns that the respect and admiration of one’s teammates is a lot harder to earn than the respect and admiration of the public.

I tell young men who want to be SEALs that they should set their bar higher. They should aspire not to become merely SEALs, but to become good, or outstanding SEALs. Graduating from BUD/S-SQT is a necessary but interim step.

So what is the difference between ‘merely a SEAL’ and a ‘good SEAL’?

Certainly experience helps – a few deployments, perhaps some time in combat, maybe a promotion or two. But these are simply credentials and don’t justify the qualifier ‘good’ in ‘good SEAL.’ While the SEAL Ethos may define the ideal SEAL, within the Teams a man’s reputation as a good SEAL is usually defined by two primary criteria: being a good operator and being a good teammate. Indeed, that serves as a good foundation for becoming a good SEAL. A SEAL who can’t shoot straight, is shaky or unreliable in the house, who consistently misses the DZ, or who is a danger to himself and his swim buddy underwater is at no risk of being called a good SEAL. Nor is the SEAL who always puts his own comfort and wellbeing over the needs of his teammates and Team.

But over the long run, being a good operator and teammate is still not enough. We’ve all known good operators and good teammates who have failed in important roles outside of the platoon or Team, either in other military contexts, or in their personal lives as citizens and members of our community. In so doing, they have failed their teammates and occasionally even brought discredit upon themselves and the Teams.

With time, experience, and increasing seniority, being a good SEAL requires a different and evolving set of skills to succeed in different contexts: at running a Team or Task Group or serving on a CJSOTF or JTF. Being a good SEAL gets even more complicated on a theater commander’s staff, or in the Pentagon, or managing personnel at Millington, or in an embassy, fulfilling a wide variety of unfamiliar and often thankless tasks. Excelling as a leader at any level requires perspective, judgment and decision making that are not always inherent in being a good operator and good teammate. In these environments, a SEAL is assumed to be physically tough and tactically proficient, but patience, adaptability, a broader perspective, and a certain amount of bureaucratic acumen are required to successfully support teammates, Team and mission. Becoming a good SEAL in these contexts can make the challenges of BUD/S seem simple in comparison (not easy, but simple.)

With the recent spotlight on SEALs as All-American heroes, the American public has come to expect SEALs to be great at all they do – as operators, of course, but also as husbands, fathers, citizens, icons of American courage and virtue. Sometimes, the role of American hero can be even harder to fill than being a good operator and teammate.

My Point: It is a lot harder to become a good SEAL than to become merely a SEAL, and being a good SEAL requires different skills and mindsets in different settings and contexts, and at different points in one’s career. When a good SEAL either chooses, or is forced to leave the role of tactical operator, he earns his Trident every day by stepping up to serve his teammates and mission in new ways, and by doing whatever the context and mission require, as well as he possibly can. Fulfilling the imperative “I will not fail” in these new environments can demand more, often much more, than being a good operator and good teammate. One becomes a SEAL (these days) in 12- 14 months; becoming a good SEAL is the commitment of a life time, and extends well beyond one’s time in the Teams and the Navy. Again, the only easy day was yesterday….

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6 Comments on “ETHOS Magazine essay: On Becoming a (good) SEAL”

  1. Roger Herbert Says:

    I think you nailed it, Bob. Excellent essay. I hope it starts a dialogue.


  2. Well said Bob, and those comments apply to other branches of the service, ie the Marines. We had several during my tour(s) that were “lacking” and in my opinion should have been removed from service. On the other hand, the majority I served with, despite our quirks, were excellent Marines and lived up to the standard that were set forth by our leadership.

    Keep in mind that we went through regular changes in leadership and the standards often fluctuated with them. It truly is “Tone at the Top” that drives the Marines to excel or fail. I suspect the same is true for the SEALS…

    Much like the leadership proven by “Crazy Horse”, leadership from the front and by example is always the best.

    • schoultz Says:

      Erick – Much of ‘on becoming a (good) SEAL could apply to on becoming a good lawyer, doctor, professor, being a marine, or even a NOLS instructor. While good leadership adjusts itself to those being led and the context, there are certain traits and qualities that cross those boundaries – being trustworthy and leading by example being two of the most important. Thanks for your comment

  3. Dutch Schoultz Says:

    Great exposure of the leadership required to be winner. Needs to be reviewed once a month to all members of any team

  4. Ivan Says:

    Your treatment of how being a good SEAL evolves with time, increased seniority, responsibility and accountability is spot on. I enjoyed reading your perspective very much.


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