I prepared this essay for Naval Special Warfare’s Ethos Magazine. Though it didn’t make it into their published magazine, I thought I would share it, for those interested in the challenges Navy SEALs face in managing their ‘brand.’
A couple of years ago, I picked up the book Cowboy Ethics – What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, by James Owen. The book offers 10 simple rules for life and service in any organization, one of which, “Ride for the Brand,” which Owen uses as a lead-in to a discussion of loyalty. The ethical cowboy is always riding for, and representing the brand of the ranch who hires him.
Such concepts as ‘brand management,’ ‘personal branding,’ and ‘brand recognition,’ have become standard in the marketing vocabulary of businesses or any enterprise which depends to any degree on public exposure. Managing your ‘brand’ is managing your reputation, and managing the ‘brand’ of the Navy SEALs has recently become a hot topic in the Naval Special Warfare community. This essay will primarily address the SEAL brand. But SWCCs, pay attention; there are lessons in here for you as well.
SEALs on active duty generally get clear guidance from their leaders on how to best enhance the brand of ‘the community’ in the eyes of the various stakeholder groups who impact the future of the NSW brand. If and when active duty SEALs are tempted to ride for themselves and not for their brand, their leaders have the carrot-and-stick leverage of fitness reports/evaluations, duty assignments, and the UCMJ to help lead them away from temptation, and toward the values of the NSW culture. The Navy SEAL Ethos itself provides the values and focus for the SEAL brand. The recent and public chastising of SEALs for violating rules regarding those on active duty working for private businesses sent “a clear message throughout our force that we are and will be held to a high standard of accountability,” (Radm Gary Bonelli quoted in NBCnews.com). Riding for the Brand means following the written and unwritten rules of the community. Active duty SEALs know this, and if they have any questions regarding the impact of life or career choices on ‘the brand,’ they can simply ask their commanding officer, CMC or the JAG.
‘Riding for the Brand’ after leaving active duty is not quite so simple. There is no clear guidance, and no ‘chain of command’ to guide us in deciding how (not whether, but how) to use our status as former Navy SEALs to help us in our post-Navy lives. Active duty SEALs may make a clear distinction between those still ‘inside-the-wire,’ and those outside, and may consider those who have either retired or simply gotten out, to be on their own. And yet, as we’ve recently seen, the SEAL brand is affected not just by the actions of active duty SEALs, but by former SEALs as well. In the eyes of the public and our national leaders, active and former SEALs blend together – and all share in the credit and blame when active or former SEALs succeed, or screw up. While some SEALs leave active duty but stay in the community in GS or contractor positions, many choose to take the challenge of entering the private sector, where rules are often unclear, risk and opportunity are in constant tension, and trust and loyalty seem to have different meanings than in the military. In finding a niche in the private sector, most former SEALs soon learn that their status as ‘former Navy SEAL’ is a key advantage in a very competitive world. After spending the best years of our youth in the Teams, it is the main credential we carry into our next career.
While seeking a follow-on career, most of us also still want to continue to ‘Ride for the Brand,’ so that we can continue to feel part of the brand. But what does that mean and how do we do that?
It is not always easy. I believe it is perfectly legitimate to sell one’s resume, heavily laden with SEAL experience in the open market place, and to be paid for the special skills, experience, and credibility acquired during a career in the Teams. And indeed that is what most of us do. But that doesn’t mean anything goes. There are many opportunities for former SEALs to make a living in ways that wander into the gray area of whether they are indeed still ‘Riding for the Brand,’ or possibly hurting the brand for personal advantage. Former SEALs are offered opportunities to use their status to endorse specific products, political candidates, positions, causes, create company names with clear associations to the Teams, use their credibility as former SEALs to develop and sell products and services, to do media interviews, and of course, for book deals. Whether these activities help or hurt the Navy SEAL brand depends on a wide variety of factors and nuances. It is often unclear whether an opportunity might be a legitimate post-SEAL-career activity, consistent with Riding for the Brand to which they are still loyal, or whether the money they are making may be violating an unwritten or unclear code and might indeed hurt the brand. For most SEALs entering the private sector, this is a new world and many are not well prepared for it.
Obviously it is not an either/or proposition – Ride for the Brand, or Ride for Yourself. Even the best of us are doing some of both. But finding the right balance after leaving active duty and entering the private sector is a challenge that many face. There is need for better understanding on both sides of the active/former SEAL divide: Former SEALs need to better understand the impact that the current media-intensive environment has on the Teams – the spotlight is on active and former SEALs alike, and what former SEALs do impacts those still in the fight. Active SEALs need to better understand the perspectives and challenges faced by of those competing in the private sector. Former SEALs and those getting ready to get out, need some guidance on how to best use their association with the SEAL brand to help create a successful follow-on career that not only serves the former SEAL and his family, but also continues to serve the active NSW community. It may be time to create a SEAL Ethos for those who have left active duty.