The below article was written by a close friend and mentor of mine, Captain Bob Schoultz. You can follow him online at http://msgl-bobscorner.blogspot.com/
The SEAL Ethos emphasizes the virtues of toughness, integrity, loyalty, courage, and tenacity. It is a great standard – one that all of us should aspire to live by. It serves as a vision and ideal to guide us – a touchstone to fall back on in times of stress, confusion, weakness or moral uncertainty.
However as I read it, I realize that the SEAL Ethos assumes a healthy dose of good judgment in the warrior who looks to it for guidance. Uncompromising commandments such as “I will not quit” or “I am never out of the fight” or “I will not fail” are inspiring and useful, but cannot be taken literally – we must assume maturity and good judgment in their application. Indeed, discretion IS sometimes the better part of valor, and most of us have little difficulty imagining situations in which we would expect the experienced SEAL to back off and choose to live to fight another day. We would not admire nor respect a SEAL who, because he ‘will not quit’ or ‘will not fail,’ persists in risking the lives and talents of his men with single minded tenacity on a mission or task that may be doomed to failure or ill-conceived to begin with. Fortunately, it is usually safe to assume ‘good judgment’ in our SEALs; but it also goes without saying that ALL SEALs do not ALWAYS demonstrate good judgment – it must be developed and nurtured, and that is an on-going process.
The NSW Center puts SEAL and SWCC candidates through the crucible of being ‘trained in the severest school’ (Thucydides) in order that they understand in the clearest terms, the values and expectations of the NSW culture they are entering. These values and expectations define the boundaries of what the NSW culture will consider ‘good judgment’ from its members. Additionally, each new job, each position of increased responsibility, each new theater of operations, requires the warrior to devote time to learning that new context in order to know what success looks like in that environment. Good judgment is decision-making that succeeds, but those decisions will be different in different contexts, and success must be measured over the long term.
A person’s good judgment may be constrained to a specific context, depending on one’s specialty and experience. A warrior may develop highly refined and nuanced judgment in one environment, and yet be incompetent or inexperienced in another. Good judgment in a specific context also doesn’t make one a good or wise person. Ernest Shackleton was one of history’s great leaders, and repeatedly exercised amazing judgment borne of great insight into the strengths, limitations and needs of people in times of stress and crisis. His personal life however, was a shambles and he was being chased by his creditors until the day he died.
Good judgment is a moving target, and hard to define, but all leaders recognize it as essential. Then why isn’t it explicitly included in the SEAL Ethos? “Never quit,” and “ I will not fail” should be starting points when a person of honor assumes a responsibility or makes a commitment, to himself or others. But sometimes the thinking person may have to ask whether, in THIS situation, such resolution truly is proper. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous speech in which he demanded “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never….’ But Churchill’s quote ends with “. ..never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” These are important caveats.
Mark Twain said that good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of experience comes from bad judgment. This is a clever way to say that we learn and become wiser from our mistakes. It has also been said that smart people learn from their own mistakes; wise people from the mistakes of others. Implicitly built into the SEAL Ethos is the need to see the bigger picture and for good situational awareness, to know what our culture expects and demands of us, and to have the humility to learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. These are the foundations of the good judgment necessary to appropriately understand and tap into the power contained in the SEAL Ethos.
Bob Schoultz Capt USN (ret)
Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership
University of San Diego School of Business Administration
"The MSGL prepares students to succeed in the global arena through study of the principles of ethical leadership, best business practices, and respect for cultural, political, and economic differences."