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.