It’s Not Just the Culture of Special Operations That Needs to Change

For all those asserting that the culture of Special Operations needs to change, I’d suggest that you expand your notions of what culture really means. I was fortunate enough, after I retired, to go back to the intellectual pursuits I forsook when I entered the military as a young man right after college. The University of Oxford and HEC Paris afforded me that opportunity, and my family afforded me the time and support I needed to dig deeply into the science of complexity and, more importantly, to see for myself what it actually means to us humans—what does it portend?—as we are decidedly not subatomic particles, even though we are decidedly composed of them.

From that 20 months of learning, both profoundly reflective and inferential, and from the 25 years I spent as an enlisted operator in the SEAL Teams, 19 of those at Naval Special Warfare Development Group, I extracted insights that were previously unavailable to me during my time in the service. Today, I understand that there is no single thing as “culture.” There’s no single American culture, no Oxford culture, no Washington, D.C. culture, no Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine culture. We are, rather, a mosaic, a collection of cultures and subcultures nested within one another and ostensibly aligned to the mission of upholding our constitution and defending our country. These various levels of culture emerge from the mix (or maybe welter) of humans that comprise them; they form from and around the relationships that spring up between and among people who are brought together for a common purpose and who perform a common task. Culture emerges from the job and the people that do it. So the culture of an 8-man seal team will be emphatically different from the culture of the bureaucrats that oversee them and purport to lead them.

I’ve seen several articles recently suggesting that military members should follow a simple rules strategy to fix their cultural issues, like “Do these 5 things, and you’ll be well on your way to winning the culture-change war.” How quaint. But if we were to recognize that culture is a mosaic, then we might take the next step and realize that the context, the diaphanous, semi-permeable box within which a culture forms, differs from culture to culture, and thus the simple rules for changing it will also differ, or the degree to which a rule should be applied will differ from context to context. It’s heady stuff, this culture-change game.

But if you want a simple rule, here’s one: Don’t start off by saying, “We have a problem.” Start off by saying, “We have more than one culture. To what do we align them, and how do we align them?” That’s a good place to start. It sends the signal that you don’t have all the answers—no one does—and that you need help and support in effecting change because all change is effected locally. In any event, it’s a much better place to start than ordering everyone to get a shave and a haircut. That’s using your rank as a bludgeon and is admittedly consistent with aggressive behaviors—an aspect of culture—that emerge from rigid, dominance-oriented hierarchies.

How successful is the rigid hierarchy that is our military? One look to the scoreboard from Korea on should provide the answer.

But to answer my own question—To what do we align?—I’m reminded of my first days in the Navy and the three words I was introduced to: honor, courage, and commitment. From the day I entered the service, I was asked, or told rather, to align with those values. Values, of course, comprise a sizeable chunk of one’s culture, as do our shared beliefs about the world, the assumptions we make as to what is right and wrong, good and bad, the normative behaviors we adopt, and the artifacts we construct that provide information and send strong signals about who we are, what we value, and what we do.

Honor, courage, and commitment …

While my business is coaching and consulting for organizations today, I’m still asked to talk to groups of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines from time to time. Whenever I’m in front of a group of sailors, whether officer or enlisted, I ask them what their core values are. And the answer is immediately forthcoming—honor, courage, and commitment. But when I ask those same sailors what those values actually mean, the answers are not so forthcoming. But the resounding silence is. Then I ask, “Well, forget about the dictionary definitions, what do those values mean to you?” Occasionally someone will raise his or her hand to give an answer, but, predominantly, it’s silence again that greets me. Crickets—all the way down.

What should I make of that silence? Here’s where human perception, which is deeply flawed at times, comes into play. Some in the military would see this in black-and-white terms: “Well, if you can’t tell me your core values and what they mean, you shouldn’t be in a leadership position and you probably shouldn’t be in this organization.” I shudder to think that I was ever that person, but I might have been.

Fair enough. But I’d suggest that those sailors find it difficult to answer those questions because core values aren’t part of the daily narrative—nor is talk of the assumptions we make and challenges to them, the beliefs we share and those we don’t, the behaviors we find acceptable and unacceptable, and the meanings of the symbols (the artifacts) we hold aloft as signs of prestige, distinction, and value. Nor are people rewarded on the spot when they are seen behaving in a way that’s consistent with their core values—and rewarded by superiors and subordinates alike (yes, subordinates can and should reward a superior’s value-oriented behavior). I suspect, too, that some portion of these sailors to whom I pose these questions don’t see their superiors acting in a way that’s consistent with the core values; in fact, they might see an inconsistency in their superior’s behavior and a level of hypocrisy—gaps between what they say and what they do. I know I did. When I said, “Don’t use those super-secret, never-been-tested helicopters” for the bin Laden raid, my courage was harshly excoriated. That poor example of leadership aside, if we know anything about the power of formal leadership, it’s that subordinates will often emulate the behaviors, good and bad, of their immediate superiors, if only because they interpret those behaviors as essential to achieving success.

The second simple rule for culture change, then, might be: Don’t look down at the troops for the necessity to change, look in the mirror.

And when it comes to the question of “What do those values mean to you?” most won’t take an interpersonal risk in front of their peers, subordinates, and superiors to answer that question because they fear something, maybe ridicule, maybe embarrassment, or perhaps they fear some injury to their accumulated status or self-worth. Whatever the case, something is holding them back.

And that something is the real cause of our cultural misalignment. It speaks to lack of genuine quality in the relationships between and among the service members—relationships around which culture forms. And that lack of quality is brought on by the unstated values resident in our military: obedience to the point of obeisance, ultra-conformity, regimentation, and formalization. To those who genuflect, much reward is given in terms of promotions. To those who conform to their superior’s whims and never show the courage to speak out against them, much is given. To those who exercise strict control over a subordinate’s behavior, much is given. And to those who believe that relationships based on outdated modes of formality are necessary to be successful, much is given.

A teammate of mine once told me that, “The system doesn’t like those who don’t like the system.”  That’s a problem because that system is broken, or at the very least antiquated, as it’s based on Old Fritz’s 18th-century model that is no longer valid today. And because it is broken and obsolete, the cultures that emerge within that system fail to flourish. They are still powerful attractors, drawing us in and holding us in place, but that place is often more negative than positive. And, to be fair, we also see the negative far more than we see the positive because we are more finely attuned and more sensitive to negative information in our environment.

When we add it all up, we find that the courage to speak up to one’s superiors is non-existent or in short supply, just as the courage to hold a teammate accountable for his or her behavior, or lack thereof, is non-existent or in short supply. Commitment is lacking because the voices from below are shut out or not solicited. “Buy-in” is a farce. And honor—to bring distinction on oneself, one’s team, and one’s country—has been perverted to mean: Yours is not to reason why …

Jim Mattis once told me, during my short tenure at Stanford, that “You get the behaviors you reward.” He’s right—to an extent. But I’d submit to the old warrior that he be careful, because we are rewarding the wrong behaviors, and its grim effects are evident at varying degrees all the way up, down, and sideways.