Navy SEALs, Fame and the Lure of Narcissism – A Cautionary Tale for Leaders

The publication this week of No Easy Day, a book written by former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette (using the pseudonym Mark Owen) detailing his involvement in the killing of Osama bin Laden, offers a cautionary tale for leaders everywhere. How do you deal with cultivating and enforcing your organization’s culture when it clashes with the values of your team members and the evolving behavioral norms of society at large?

The Navy SEALs, along with the other special operation forces of the military, have a long and storied culture of humility, honor, and selflessness. The mantra of their profession has always been “we don’t talk about what we do,” yet that philosophy has come in direct conflict with the desires and decisions of current and former SEALs to cash in on their experiences and expertise.

“We do NOT advertise the nature of our work, NOR do we seek recognition for our actions,” said Rear Adm. Sean Pybus, in an email message to his 2,500 soldiers this week. He said he was “disappointed, embarrassed and concerned” that troops are now openly speaking and writing about what they do.

“Most of us have always thought that the privilege of working with some of our nation’s toughest warriors on challenging missions would be enough to be proud of, with no further compensation or celebrity required. Today, we find former SEALs headlining positions in a presidential campaign; hawking details about a mission against Enemy Number 1; and generally selling other aspects of NSW training and operations. For an Elite Force that should be humble and disciplined for life, we are certainly not appearing to be so. We owe our chain of command much better than this.”

Pybus’ comments seem somewhat hypocritical given the fact that active duty SEALs were given approval to appear in the recent movie Act of Valor, former SEALs and special operatives appeared in the TV show Stars Earn Stripes, the Pentagon and CIA have provided support for an upcoming movie about the bin Laden raid, Zero Dark Thirty,  and SEALs are working on two other movies currently in production.

In their book, The Mirror Effect – How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America, doctors Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young studied the narcissistic behaviors of American celebrities and their effects on society at large. They suggest that the explosion of reality TV shows, tabloid journalism, instantaneous news via the internet, gossip websites, personal blogs, and social networks are all changing our perceptions of what’s “normal” and facilitating the mirroring of these behaviors in our lives, particularly among the young.

This is the very cultural clash facing the SEALs. In a story on this subject, a recently retired senior SEAL said, “It’s a generational thing that is happening to some extent. Some younger SEALs who have grown up in the age of the Internet and instant online communications simply feel it’s their right to talk about their work, as long as they can claim it’s not classified.”

There are no easy answers to this dilemma. In fact, if we as leaders are honest with ourselves, we would be the first to admit that we have our own battles with narcissism. A Ohio State University study found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups – it’s in our nature. But because it’s in our nature doesn’t mean that it has to control us.

In dealing with this challenge I’m reminded of the old Native American story about the battle of two wolves inside each of us. One wolf is Evil and it is anger, jealousy, pride, ego, and greed. The other wolf is Good and it is love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, selflessness, and compassion. Which wolf wins? The one you choose to feed.

4 Comments on “Navy SEALs, Fame and the Lure of Narcissism – A Cautionary Tale for Leaders

  1. Excellent thoughts. I watched the 60 minutes interview with Owen last night and I never once thought his remarks or behavior was narcissistic. I thought he went out of his way to credit others and emphasized the value of the team. I thought it was a great message. I think it was a story that needed to be told, and at least in the interview he did a very good job.

    • Thanks for your comments Bret and I appreciate your feedback. I didn’t see the 60 Minutes interview but I’ll be sure to check it out.

      Navy SEALs are probably the consummate team players because their very lives depend on each other and there isn’t much (if any) room for “me first” behavior. I would imagine Matt Bissonnette is a stand-up guy and I hope my article didn’t come across as labeling him specifically as narcissistic.

      The publication of this book is an interesting intersection of the Special Ops culture with popular culture where everyone is looking to cash in on their 15 minutes of fame.

      Take care,


  2. Thanks Randy.

    Just curious to see what you think (and others), what are the specific reasons we (individuals and/or the collective) don’t directly and respectfully call people on their narcissistic behaviours when it’s obviously having a negative impact on the situation at hand whatever that may be to each of us? Has narcissism become the norm and expected? Is narcissism getting confused with high levels of self-esteem, confidence and believing in yourself? Am I being niave in thinking that my parents raising me to be humble yet proud, modest yet confident and not taking myself to seriously but taking what I do seriously as good traits?

    • Hi Murray. Those are great questions!

      You described the delicate balance we all have to walk between having a healthy self esteem and taking pride in our accomplishments, versus falling prey to self-centric, egotistical behavior.

      It takes a lot of emotional maturity and intelligence to be able to have those difficult conversations with people and it seems easier to just let it slide.

      Take care,


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