Great and Terrible Leadership Examples in the Navy SEAL Teams
on January 5, 2021
Throughout my time in the Navy SEALs, I saw striking examples of good, mediocre, and terrible leadership. When the leadership was good, it was life-changing. Nobody exemplified that more than Bob Nielsen, our division officer.
In the short time we worked together, Bob was a tremendous role model and mentor for me. We talked every day, not only about the changes in the course and how it was going but also about my life and career. Bob knew that sooner or later I had a decision coming: whether to continue working as an instructor, try out for a top-tier unit, as he had done, or get out of the service altogether. This fork in the road wouldn’t come for a few years yet, but I was thinking about it. Bob knew that, and he served as a wise and solid sounding board.
The greatest thing about working for Bob was that he completely empowered us to run his course. “You guys are it,” he told us. “You’re the experts; I trust you.” When someone you look up to and respect so highly puts his trust in you and gives you the mandate to act, that’s the greatest feeling in the world. Our hard work made Bob look good — and in fact, that was a big part of our motivation. We wanted to make him look good.
But Bob wasn’t the problem that was gnawing at me. The problem was that Bob wasn’t there anymore. When I said “in the short time we worked together,” I meant it. Barely a month after Eric and I arrived at the course, Bob called me into his office and let me know he was moving on to another billet. Then he told me who his replacement would be: a master chief named Harvey Clayton.
“Harvey? Shit, Senior Chief Nielsen! You have to be kidding me.” I knew Master Chief Clayton by his reputation, and it wasn’t a good one. He was a dyed-in-the-wool fleet Navy guy who’d come to the teams as a senior enlisted man with no real experience down-range. He’d made chief right away and been shuffled around the teams in a variety of admin roles. I’d been fleet Navy myself for four years before joining the SEALs and, as I knew firsthand, they are two completely different cultures. While he was a hell of a shot and an excellent match shooter, match shooting is not sniping, and Harvey had no real-world experience as a sniper. Putting someone like that in charge of a group of SEALs would be like trying to work inch-based nuts and bolts with a metric toolkit.
On top of that, I’d heard that he was a major dick to work for.
Bob gave me a bland, unreadable look. “I know this course will be in good hands with you guys,” he said. “No doubt in my mind.” He clearly knew that Harvey was a poor choice for the position, but he just as clearly trusted Eric and me and figured that however difficult Harvey might be, he would at least stay out of our way. “Sorry, gents,” Bob said.
I don’t think he ever dreamed of just how bad it would get.
Harvey’s deficiency as a sniper should not have been a problem in and of itself. All he really had to do was lean on us. Between Eric, myself, and our other instructors, we had it completely covered. Things might have worked out fairly well if he had just let us do our jobs. The problem was, he was incredibly insecure toward junior, more experienced instructors. That insecurity just would not let him get out of the way and allow us to do what we were there to do. Once he took command, it quickly became obvious that our working relationship was the opposite of what we’d had with Bob Nielsen. Whereas Bob would defer to us, with Harvey everything had to be his idea. It had to be his course, his curriculum. And he was strongly resistant to most of the innovations that Eric and I were trying to implement.
If Bob Nielsen exemplified the best in leadership, Harvey was leadership at its most abysmal. He micromanaged the teaching and curricula, was patronizing and antagonistic to the students, and exercised poor judgment in countless decisions both large and small. The quality of the course began to suffer as a result. We’d made Bob look good. Harvey was making us look terrible.
Harvey’s behavior had been a problem during that summer session with Matt and Morgan. After they graduated and we moved into the fall, things grew even worse.
That fall was the last time we held the course at Camp Pendleton. Nailing down a consistent, established location for the shooting portion of the course had been a constant headache, and as much as we wanted it to, Pendleton wasn’t working out. This was a Marine facility, which meant we didn’t have priority. We’d reserve the range, but the Marines could kick us out whenever they wanted.
The rifle club, several hours to the north, where Glen and I had gone through the course in 2000, was another possibility. In fact, it was an ideal location in many ways. But there was one big problem with that place. The dry, dusty environment harbored coccidioidomycosis (“valley fever”) spores. This didn’t seem to bother the locals; maybe they’d adapted to it. When out-of-towners came for an event that might last just a few days, they didn’t seem troubled by it. But living out there in tents for weeks on end, our guys kept getting sick, and valley fever can be brutal. As much as I loved that location, I’d had to face the fact that we just couldn’t use it.
Except Harvey disagreed.
“We’re going to make it work,” he said. “We’ll do dust mitigation — get a water truck up there and spray it down every day.” “Right,” I thought. “Like that’ll work.”
In every class, the senior (i.e. highest-ranking) student serves as the class leader. For that session, our class leader was Rob, a guy I knew from Team Three. Rob came to me and said, “Hey, Instructor Webb, we got our teams to pay for trailers. We’re going to rent RVs so we don’t have to sleep in the tents and inhale all that toxic dust.”
I thought Rob’s solution was brilliant. Harvey didn’t.
“Absolutely not!” he said when he heard what the students were planning. “That’s a waste of the Navy’s money! I’ve got the water truck lined up, and it won’t be a problem.” He put the kibosh on the whole thing — called their command and had them cancel the RVs.
I was furious. There was no reason to pull the plug on this plan. It would have been no skin off Harvey’s back; the money was coming out of Team Three’s budget. Whether it was Harvey’s need to show he was in control or just plain meanness, it was unconscionable.
But wait. It got worse.
There we were, up in that spore-infested environment again with no trailers, the guys putting up their tents to get ready for the course. On the first day of the session, guess who shows up in a fucking RV? If you guessed Harvey, you’d be right. During the six long weeks of that shooting phase, he was the only one there who was not sleeping in a tent. And of course, his spraying-down-the-dust plan was worthless. To no one’s surprise (but Harvey’s) our guys started getting sick again. It was an abomination.
Harvey’s behavior went from bad to worse. Now he started getting drunk, stalking the facility, and yelling at the students he didn’t like. It was beyond embarrassing.
When the students were given course critiques to fill out, they hammered him. “Unprofessional,” “hurting credibility,” and “a clear weak point” in the course were some of the critiques. One of them wrote, “Master Chief Clayton is an idiot.” I watched Harvey turn crimson as he read through them. He grabbed a handful of the papers and said, “I’m going back in there, and they’re going to fill these out all over again!”
“Master Chief Clayton,” I explained, “you can’t do that. These are their fucking critiques! The whole point is to get their honest feedback.”
He glared at me, stalked out of the office, went back into the classroom, and ordered the students to fill out new critiques. Which they did — and they filled them out exactly the same way again.
Three of our instructors were newly minted chiefs themselves. I went to them and said, “Guys, we have to do something about Harvey. It can’t go on like this. He’s killing the course.”
They knew I was right. They also knew my hands were tied. I was in charge of the course — but I wasn’t a chief.
In the Navy, the title of chief refers to the upper ranks of enlisted men. Becoming a chief is a serious accomplishment. Chiefs are the Navy’s version of senior management. They have their own eating area on the ship (called the chiefs’ mess) and walk their own walk. Even officers (if they’re smart, which they often are) will defer to a chief’s judgment. In essence, chiefs run the Navy.
Harvey was a master chief, rank E-9. I was a petty officer first class, rank E-6. This problem was literally above my pay grade. If anyone was going to do something about the situation, it was going to have to be one of the three other chiefs. I knew it, and they knew it. Yet this was the last thing any of them wanted to do. In the military, going around your boss to complain about him to his superiors is one of the worst sins you can commit. But they also knew that Harvey was destroying the fabric and credibility of the course.
Finally one of our chiefs, Chris Sajnog, took it on.
And took it on the chin.
When Chris went to our command’s master chief and complained about Harvey, the only impact it had was to get Chris knocked on his ass. He was instantly relieved of his post at the sniper course and went from the number one E-7 (chief) at the command to last. Any chance he had of ever making senior chief (E-8) evaporated on the spot. Chris had joined the Navy in the late 80s, had graduated from BUD/S Class 199, and had gone on to a stellar career in the teams. He was at the top of his dive class and an excellent corpsman. Now his career was effectively gutted.
As Chris was cleaning out his desk, Harvey said to him, “Hey, Sajnog — no hard feelings.”
Chris didn’t say a word. “I wanted to crush his skull with my fist,” he told me recently. But he held his tongue and his fist. I don’t know if I could have managed that level of restraint.
I had no appetite for dinner that night. Chris was gone, Harvey reigned supreme, and I had nothing to show for our attempted coup but a large knot in my stomach. I didn’t see how things could get any worse. I went back to my office in our subterranean bunker and sat in my desk chair brooding. There was nothing I could do. With Chris thrown under the bus, there was no way that either of the other two chiefs was going to risk making a move. Not being a chief myself, I was clearly powerless in this situation.
And then, out of the blue, I thought about Matt Axelson.
By this time, Matt was long gone from sniper school. He was off somewhere with his platoon in their final training and preparation before deploying to Afghanistan. But the impact of watching him go through our course had stayed with me. And now, as I sat feeling sorry for myself at how royally Harvey had pissed on my life, I remembered something I’d witnessed the summer before when Matt and Morgan were going through the course.
One day that summer, I had been observing one of our instructors giving a group of students some training on how to take environmental factors into account when calling a shot. A metal rifle barrel expands as it heats up. This translates into increased pressure on the round as it passes through, which in turn means higher muzzle velocity and an altered arc of trajectory. Because of this, the instructor had been explaining, you can’t necessarily follow the specs from a DOPE sheet (“data on personal equipment,” a table of shooting specs for your rifle). “The adjustment you made for elevation this morning may have worked perfectly this morning,” he had been telling the class, “but now it’s a good 20 degrees warmer, and your round is going to have a proportionately flatter arc, so to compensate you need to adjust your elevation down.”
“No, no, no, no, no!” Harvey had said, cutting the instructor off as he waded in. “Don’t start changing your setting and messing everything up. Trust your DOPE, you guys, trust your DOPE!”
It was an appalling scene. Harvey had no interest in the kind of sophisticated ballistic know-how we were teaching. He was strictly old-school, and any new-fangled ideas or significant improvements over what he’d learned when he was a student made him feel threatened. Which was bad enough. But to butt in and contradict an instructor right in front of the students was so fundamentally inappropriate — and it was obvious that the students all knew that as well as I did. I could see it on their faces. Their reactions to his hissy fit had ranged from amused to incredulous to disgusted. Two or three guys standing behind Harvey, who knew he couldn’t see them, had actually rolled their eyes.
But not Axelson. Matt had behaved with complete decorum. In fact, he was the only guy on the range that day giving Harvey his full attention. I knew damn well that he knew what an ass Harvey was being. Matt was no fool, and he hadn’t missed a beat. He had simply responded by being a total professional. Matt had been the grown-up here, and Harvey had been a child.
I vividly remembered standing there watching that scene unfold and thinking, “This is totally fucked-up.”
That snapshot vignette had burned itself into my brain, and I couldn’t erase it, forget, or ignore it.
“Goddammit, Axelson,” I muttered, as I sat brooding in my bunker.
It was that higher-standard thing. No way around it. I would have to do this thing myself, the situation demanded it. Even if it meant throwing my career in the toilet, as Sajnog had done. If I didn’t step up, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
“Goddammit, Axelson,” I repeated, then got up from my chair. The decision had been made. As long as someone like Harvey was in charge, we didn’t deserve students like Matt.
I pulled together details of Harvey’s bad behavior, took my collected papers to Harvey’s superiors, and reported him.
Then held my breath all that night.
I don’t know if it was the fact that I’d so carefully documented my claims, or that the warrant officer in charge decided to back me to the master chief he reported to, or that this was the second Harvey-related complaint in as many weeks. I’ll likely never know. Whatever it was, by some miracle, my point got through. The next day Harvey packed his bags and quietly left.
By the time the next session began, Harvey had left the Navy — and I’d made chief.
Over the next few months, I got calls and e-mails from former students. They were thanking me for sticking my neck out (or to put it more accurately, for placing it directly on the executioner’s block) and were expressing their relief and gratitude that Harvey was finally gone.