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A Different Leadership Lesson From Navy SEALs

I recognize that there's an inherent risk in comparing associations to military operations, especially in the midst of a heated campaign season. But an article in the Daily Beast yesterday got me thinking about something. Hang with me for a paragraph or two.

Today marks the publication of No Easy Day, a memoir by Matt Bissonnette, a former Navy SEAL who participated in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Bissonette is publishing the book under a pseudonym, Mark Owen, but his real name went public not long after the book was announced, and the very existence of the book has prompted some ugly public retorts among the onetime close-knit ranks. Earlier this week the Daily Beast reported on an e-book in which special-ops veterans criticize the publication of No Easy Day and speculate on the author's motives: "'Bissonnette was treated very poorly upon his departure ... once he openly shared that he was considering getting out of the Navy to pursue other interests,' [they write]. "Bissonnette was essentially given a plane ticket back to Virginia and nothing else--not much of a thank-you for his 'honesty and 14 years of service.'"

I admit to being a bit surprised, reading about all this. If the most fearsome, best-trained fighting force in the military---a no-nonsense, get-it-done unit adhering to the highest possible standards---can't set aside its squabbling, what hope is there for our staffs? Our boards?

The analogy is imperfect, I know: Navy SEALs operate in life-and-death situations that few can fathom, and the necessity for secrecy there is much more pronounced. But something very familiar and human also seems to be going on here: People are brought into a privileged group with at best a limited amount of forethought about what might happen when people leave. "Members of the Special Operations community are well known for eating their own," the e-book authors say. That mindset is designed to solidify ranks, but it fails when somebody is motivated, for whatever reason---a less stressful job, a lucrative book contract---to break from them.

In the same way that smart organizations think about the right way to sunset programs and products, some deliberate care seems essential when we consider the end of a board member's tenure; a toast at one last breakfast and a chance to walk the stage one more time at the annual conference may not enough if they're not attached to feelings of respect and accomplishment. Proper closure requires working with board leaders months before their term ends to find out how they felt about their service---and, if those feelings aren't entirely positive, what can be done in the time remaining to improve it. Not doing it risks lingering resentment---and, at its worst, public disagreement that can harm how your organization is perceived.


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