What’s So Special about Special Forces? – 12 Lessons in Leadership and Elite Team Performance from 12 Strong Men

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me.” —Isaiah 6:8; “Inscription on the dog tag resting on the flag-draped, homeward-bound casket of an American Special Operations warrior killed in action in Afghanistan, July 2005” – Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior

As growing leaders we should eagerly learn from all types of professions and fields. For many, there is no better source than the military. Whether its character, accomplishing a mission, adapting to adversity, selflessness and teamwork, it’s hard to beat the lessons we can learn from the military.

Look around today the media today and you’ll see books, podcasts and movies from one specific elite military group in particular – the Navy Seals. The Seals provide great role models in leadership and deserve all the attention they receive. But when it comes to unique and unconventional lessons from an elite organization, it’s about time that one unit step out of the shadows for recognition – the US Army Special Forces.

I recall the winter of 1996 when I was a young Captain serving in the US Army in Bosnia.  I was chatting with my fellow officer and roommate LT Mick Braun (now LTC Braun). We were both serving in an artillery battalion.  We were discussing plans after our deployment. I was leaving the service after 5 years and Mick would be transitioning branches, from Chemical Corps to Special Forces.  As we discussed his career move and I continued to track and follow his career with great admiration from a far, I remember continually thinking:

What’s so special about Special Forces?

Dick Couch, author of Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior , and a former Navy Seal no less, calls Special Forces “the most valuable asset on this battlefield. The Special Forces solider is the most important man in uniform – our most essential warrior.”

As the movie 12 Strong  has been released (January 2018 in the US, February in Europe) it’s time that the quiet professionals of the Special Forces emerge from the shadows and become a beacon of true leadership in our turbulent times.

Here are 12 lessons from the most elite and uncommon military unit in the world.

  1. The most adaptable military unit in the world

“The Special Forces are the jazzmen of the military world, working without a score, improvising their way out of trouble.” – The New York Times

In the aftermath of 9/11 the US military scrambled to find some solution to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sending conventional military would take months of preparation and their effectiveness was questionable. The Pentagon chose a creative solution – send a specific group of commandos called Special Forces. They are not necessarily the greatest group of commandos the US military has to offer, but they are the most adaptable. Other elite group specialize in direct action operations – raids and other close quarter combat. But Special Forces are the most adaptable unit in the US military. While they can engage directly with the enemy they also have to work closely with the indigenous population where cultural skills such as language and diplomacy are just as important as warfighting skills.

Master of Chaos: The Secret History of Special Forces author Linda Robinson called the Afghanistan mission ‘the pinnacle of recent SF success is this mission where less than 100 soldiers took down the Taliban regime, and did it all in less than one month.” How was that even possible? Small 12 man teams of Special Forces where deployed in Uzbekistan and then flown across the mountains to meet up with Afghani warlords who were part of the Northern Alliance.

Captain Mitch Nelson was the team leader of the first Special Forces unit sent to Afghanistan. His teams’ heroic exploits are depicted in the book 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers (previously published as Horse Soldiers).  After he met up with Afghani warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum he was dismayed watching the Afghani soldiers go to battle on horses versus former Soviet Union tanks and mechanized transport carriers of the Taliban. But then he had a creative idea. “We can win. An idea hit him. If we can coordinate air support, we can beat these guys and kill the armor they bring up out of reserve once we’ve kicked their ass.”

The world then saw photos of American soldiers guiding precision bombs on Taliban targets. “Afghanistan saw a merger of nineteenth-century warfare and twenty-first century close air-support,” wrote Robert D. Kaplan.  This success was not a fluke, writes Guerrilla Factory: The Making of Special Forces Officers, the Green Berets author Tony Schwalm, “..but the product of a deft application of a mode of warfare discounted in the days of a twenty-four news cycle.”

  1. Unconventional warfare – Teachers and Fighters

“I am a warrior. I will teach and fight whenever and wherever my nation requires.” – from the SF creed

I was trained as a military officer in conventional warfare, part of what we called the ‘Big Army.’ Tony Schwalm explains it so: “Conventional warfare is the traditional, symmetrical, large-scale fight, conducted with tanks, warships, large formations of aircraft, an endless supply of cruise missiles and hundreds of thousands of men and women.”

Special Forces specialize in unconventional warfare.  This is categorically different than our traditional understanding of warfare. Special Forces veteran Schwalm says “ It is the art of using other country’s indigenous forces to fight in support of US national interests…Unconventional warfare derives it’s power from a sophisticated blend of diplomacy and shocking violence.”

The creed of the Special Forces explains their unique identity well.  In the epigraph of this section you will see that these unique warriors are teachers and fighters. Their mission is to work “by, with and through” other countries military forces. Every good teacher needs to master their discipline and Special Forces is no different. “I will strive to excel in every art and artifice of war,” is how they internalize it in their creed.  “US Army Special Forces have pioneered skills and developed the mindset needed to contest what is essentially a war for the human mind,” writes Linda Robinson in Masters of Chaos.

  1. Daniel Boone vs Superman – The Two Types of Special Operations Forces warriors

“Unconventional warfare is a Swiss Army Knife, with many modes, some of them subtle and indirect.” – Guerilla Factory

Most civilians are confused about the differences of the different elite commando units operating in the military. Tony Schwalm helps us differentiate the main types: “Daniel Boone vs Superman.” Superman is the warrior “without equal in the world, probably history.” Think of Navy Seals, Army Rangers and the secretive Delta Force. “To illustrate,” Schwalm continues,” when Superman arrives he usually says, ‘I’m here to kill somebody. Where is he?’ If you are that carbon-based life form and identifiable to Superman, you are probably going to die at his hands.”

Contrast that to the typical Special Forces soldier. Schwalm’s hypothetical conversation goes something like this: “Hello, and how is everyone today?” Good. So, we’re here to train you to use your stuff more effectively and maybe bring in some American air power if we need it. But hey, while we’re waiting, how’s everybody feeling? Huh? Anybody sick or wounded? Got a pregnant wife? Girlfriend? Both. No problem. We’re here to help.”

Both Superman and Daniel Boone are collectively part of the Special Operations Force (SOF). “The Special Forces are the largest component of the elite units knows as special operations forces (SOF) which also include Navy Seals, Army Rangers, the secret Delta Force, the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations units”, explains Linda Robinson.

This elite organization has four primary missions:

  • Direct Action (DA): These are the small-unit infantry skills of engaging directly with the enemy to include patrols, raids, ambushes and close quarter battle in urban areas.
  • Special Reconnaissance (SR): This is a specialized operation of extended period of observation of the enemy’s activities, deep behind the enemy line.
  • Unconventional Warfare (UW): These are operations of training and assisting indigenous forces to overthrow and defeat their own government. This is also called guerrilla warfare. Think of the classic SF mission above in Afghanistan overthrowing the Taliban.
  • Foreign Internal Defense (FID), now commonly referred to as Counter Insurgency (COIN): These operations call for the training and assistance of a country’s military to resist the opposition guerilla forces. Think of our support of Iraq to defeat ISIS.

While Special Forces can do all four missions, only UW and FID missions are unique to them. These tasks call for the training of others in local languages. “Trigger-pulling” skills are necessary but not sufficient successfully accomplish these two missions.

“We do not call for re-enforcements, we create them.” – A Special Forces recruiting poster

  1. A Unique history and heritage of noble ideals – De Oppresso Liber

“What do you think a soldier’s job is Dervel? To fight battles of behalf of people who can’t fight for themselves.” – King Arthur speaking to a young soldier in The Winter King

The men and women of the US military all serve others in a higher cause. But only the Special Forces have the noble ideal of ‘liberating the oppressed,” enshrined in their mission. This noble cause of helping the weak fight for themselves is part of the unique heritage and history of Special Forces. Founded in 1952 by COL Aaron Black, “it was envisioned that they would carry out the role in World War II by the Office of Strategic Service.” This unit, called the OSS, was created in World War II to go behind enemy lines in Europe and Asia to assist local partisans in their struggle against fascist powers of Nazi German and Imperial Japan.

President Kennedy christened Special Forces with their trademark Green Beret. “In April 1962, the president published an official White House memorandum to the U.S. Army stating that ‘The green beret is again becoming a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.’”   He called for the “full spectrum of military, paramilitary and civil action.” The Special Forces came in to the consciousness of the US public during their work in the Vietnam War. In fact, in 1966 the number one pop song for five weeks was called “Ballad of the Green Berets,”   written by a SF solider Barry Sadler.  And the Bolivian commandos who killed the Marxist guerilla Che Gueverra in 1967 were trained by a Special Forces team.

These quiet, strong men truly represent the noble ideals of supporting the struggle of the oppressed and weak.

  1. A most unique mind set – “human perception, judgement and finesse”

“He [Major Mark Mitchell] reflected on how, exactly he had survived. His Special Forces training had taught him to ignore pain and mental exhaustion. But it had taught him something more important, and complex: to think first and shoot last…He had been trained to see the world through other people’s eyes.” – 12 Strong

By the nature of their mission Special Forces has to work arm in arm with the local, indigenous population of the countries they serve to protect. These soldiers have to be creative to adapt to the norms of countries with different cultures, languages and history to ours.  Chosen Soldier author Dick Couch reminds us that “not every soldier has the intelligence to learn the interpersonal and technical skills to live and work another culture.”

In Hollywood, soldiers are portrayed unleashing havoc with massive firepower. The reality of a SF soldier’s job is very different. In her book Masters of Chaos, Linda Robinson shares a unique perspective:  “Pyrotechnics of the profession are impressive….however, when one observes the day-to-day activities of the Special Forces solider and his twelve man team the human perception, judgement, and finesse [my italics] compromise the sensitively calibrated instrument that navigates the knife-edge of success and defeat. Rarely is hardware the determining factor.’

“It is their country and their war and your time here is limited.” – T. E. Lawrence dictum

These ‘soft skills’ are not what we typically think of as successful traits for these ‘hard warriors.’ The Guerilla Factory  author Schwalm introduces to the importance of legitimacy. “Our goal: to ensure legitimacy and win rapport among people that our military is unaccustomed to worrying about very much. Our success in pursuing our interests anywhere in the world can be measured along these lines.” He continues, this “legitimacy brings intimacy, and intimacy brings understanding – and victory. Like lovers, we get to know the people by way of an intimacy born of wanting to help.”

Judgement, intimacy, finesse and human perception all in service to gaining the legitimacy of another culture. These ‘soft skills’ sound more like the traits needed for diplomats rather than hard core warriors. In the world of the Green Berets, the human terrain is just as important as the physical terrain.

  1. Cross cultural warriors: Masters of the human terrain as much as the physical terrain

“Humans are more important than hardware.” – First SOF Truth

“A Special Forces solider has to be good behind the gun and be able to deal effectively with other cultures.” – Chosen Soldier, Dick Couch

What makes the Big Army earn it’s nickname is a big organization, spending big budgets on big pieces of equipment. The planes, ships, tanks, cannons and rockets to equip the conventional forces takes big bucks. You’d be remiss if you didn’t think big hardware spending was the key to modern day warfare.

Special Forces soldiers believes ‘humans are more important than hardware.’ More than an empty maxim, this is the First SOF Truth that is hammered into this unique soldiers during their training. Instead of a focus solely on hardware, these warriors are taught the art of building rapport.  Language, problem-solving negotiating and other cross-cultural skills are part of their training repertoire.  Having superior firepower is not sufficient when you are living and training side by side with tribal chiefs and village elders and trying to gain their trust.

The Green Beret’s goal is to have countries solve their own problems. “Much of the Special Forces work is about relationships – relationships with superiors, subordinates, indigenous counterparts, hostile parties, insurgent actors, and nongovernmental organization types, to name a few,” writes Chosen Soldier author Dick Couch. One of the training blocks the SF officer undertakes is called adaptive thinking and leadership (ATL) module.  The goal is to “equip Special Forces officer candidates with the ability to change or modify the way they approach problems and unfamiliar situations,” writes Dick Couch. Classroom and role-playing field scenarios include negotiations in an unfamiliar environment with ambiguous instructions using techniques to solve “problems in a range of strategic, tactical, diplomatic and leadership situations,” according to Couch.

Add mandatory language training, and you get a different type of military experience that is not as glamourous as the “running-and-gunning” fighting scenes we see in movies or in the nightly news. Linda Robinson reminds us that the Green Berets are adept at “…using cultural knowledge and linguistic skills to help build a lasting peace.”

  1. Selection, assessment and training- ‘You will work hard to be average here”

“All of you were outstanding in your branches before you selected for Special Forces; you will work hard to be average here.” – Special Forces instructor speaking to training candidates

What kind of training produces these elite warriors?

Special Forces is both a leadership challenge and a cultural challenge. But above all it is an experience that takes talented and skilled soldiers and makes them work hard to be average. That’s the hallmark of all great elite training organizations. I had the same constant nagging feeling in my gut during my years at West Point: I was already skilled good before I gained entry but I had to work hard just to be average.

The Green Berets go through a rigorous process of selection, assessment and training. This encompasses physical and military training cycles that include mental and psychological screening. “Physical, mental, moral and decision-making abilities will be continually challenged and evaluated,” writes Dick Couch. “Their screening is on the order of a full-on, in-depth psychological examination and a Senate confirmation hearing – combined.”

A former commanding General of the JFK Special Warfare school [the home of Special Forces] explained the unique profile this unit seeks: “We are looking for the men who are physically tough, but more importantly, men who have the intelligence, character, interpersonal skills to be impact players…SF is one of the only military training that seeks out men who can get along with others – who can function in a cross-cultural environment.” –

“Special Forces training, like all SOF [Special Operations Forces] training, is part teaching, part testing, and part mentoring,” explains Dick Couch in Chosen Soldier. The first phases is called Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The goal is to initially screen and assess the basic skills of trainees from conventional Army units. Before you could be an elite SF warrior you had to demonstrate you had the foundational skills of a good solider: light infantry tactics of patrolling, land navigation and physical fitness.  This is where entry to the small fraternity, ‘The Brotherhood,’ begins.

High Standards are continually maintained. “We may be at war, but we’ll not lower our standards,” said a Group commander (a Colonel) addressing a class. This mean the candidates run times, swim times, obstacle course times, marksmanship scores, written tests and land navigation times are all closely evaluated. Willpower, not physical, was the most important determining factor of success

Phase 2 is the SF Qualification Course, often called the Q Course. Here small unit tactics are trained such as reconnaissance, ambush and raid patrols, mission planning and troop leading procedures. One of the culmination exercises is the rigorous land navigation test. This is often called a ‘Star Exam’ because the 18km course consists of 5 locations crisscrossing in a ‘star’ pattern. Trainees take 9 hours to complete and pass the course. Land navigation is one of the most fundamental skills of SF soldiers. “As a SF soldier you’ve got to be able to navigate with a map, compass and protractor under any conditions,” writes Dick Couch. They need to not only master this skill set but also be able to teach the skill to others. It is solo work that also teaches the soldiers a lot about themselves:

“If a kid from New York City or LA can take what we teach him an go out in these swamps and woodlands and find four separate points on the map that’re two to four miles apart, than that tells us something. It tells us he’s smart, that he can solve problems in a stressful and unfamiliar environment, and that he’s self-reliant. It also tells us that he can perform when he’s tired, a little beat up, and he’s not getting the sleep he’s used to. It’s a pretty good indication that he can learn the other skills he’s going to need to become a Special Forces warrior.” – SF instructor

Selection to become a Special Forces soldier is an on-going process.  Just because you graduated and made it through the Q course it does not mean you can sit back on your laurels and relax.  You are expected to continue to grow as a professional soldier.  If you cannot maintain the standard then you are shown the door.

  1. Elite culture of high performance upheld through review boards – “whole-man concept”

“All of us have strengths and weaknesses. That’s why we assess men into Special Forces on the whole-man concept. We identify your weaknesses and help you with them.” – SF instructor

With high-standards, many soldiers don’t make the cut. At that time of the book Chosen Soldier, there were 3100 enlisted soldiers who volunteered and about 600 who were finally awarded the Green Beret. What happens to those whose performance is below standard? The leaders of Special Forces have designed review boards made of commissioned and non-commissioned officers who personally screen each of these borderline results. The board members review results from instructors and peers. A typical session may begin with the following comment, as Chosen Soldier highlights: “Your performance is marginal in several areas; why should we select you?”

“One hundred men we’ll test today,

but only three win the Green Beret.”

The Ballad of the Green Berets

The review board has serious and emotionally charged work, ultimately determining the fate and dreams of some of the most highly qualified soldier’s in the US Army. Do the soldiers score low on some technical skill but demonstrate lots of heart? Are they a marginal performer in land navigation, for example, but are rated as selfless by their peers? The review consists of a number of criteria: Demonstrated performance, potential, intelligence, maturity, adaptability, personality and creativity.  The breadth of factors evaluated demonstrates the whole-man concept that Special Forces requires for their new members.

  1. “Cool under fire” – The ability to tolerate psychological discomfort

“I remember thinking: We really have not done anything yet. Why are people quitting? I discovered later in my career that stress of the unknown is enough to make many people quit what they think they wanted to do before they started, regardless of their previous experiences…” – Tony Schwalm recounting his SF training in Guerilla Factory

One of the most subtle but important skills Special Forces master is dealing with the uncertainty of the unknown. Here is how psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener illustrate this challenge in their book The Upside of Your Dark Side: “Perhaps the most difficult test commonly used for recruiting elite Special Forces soldiers has nothing to do with marksmanship or proficiency in hand-to-hand combat. It’s a simple jog down a remote road…What makes this particular run unusually challenging is that none of the candidates are told the length of the course. Is it three hundred yards? Three miles? Thirty miles?”

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener pinpoint the ‘psychological distress’ these elite soldiers experience as they manage ‘unclear expectations, struggling with self-motivation, and balancing the use of social support with private reflection.’

Linda Robinson in Masters of Chaos explains that “clinical studies showed that Special Forces soldiers were uniquely prepared to handle extreme stress. Tested under the brutal condition of their SERE escape and evasion course, their levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and neuropeptide-Y went much higher than those of a control group in the same condition…” The results provided “a chemical portrait of what staying ‘cool under fire’ looked like.”

  1. Team organization – 12 Strong, Creative and Self-Sufficient Men

“…the 12-man Special Forces team provides the most adaptive tool the military has invented for irregular warfare.” Linda Robinson, Masters of Chaos

A Special Forces team is made of a small group of experienced and mature soldiers who have to be quite self-sufficient. Operating behind enemy lines, far removed from their chain of command, this is a small, elite cast of highly qualified experts.  It’s interesting to note the average age of a Special Forces team is 32 compared to the average age of a Marine is 19.

“The basic building block of Special Forces is the twelve-man Operational Detachment Alpha or ODA,” explains Dick Couch in Chosen Soldier. The team is led by two officers, a Captain, who is the detachment commander, often referred to as the team leader.  He’s assisted by a warrant officer, serving as the assistant detachment commander, and called assistant team leader.

Whereas most Captains in the conventional army will lead company-size units of 100+ men, Special Forces gives that same rank the responsibility for a 12 man unit. Why? In the world of Special Forces the 12 man team is the most highly skilled concentration of senior soldiers who have to think, operate and adapt without the presence and logistical support of a chain of command.

The core skills making up a Special Forces team are weapons, engineering, medical and communications. Each skill set has a senior and junior non-commissioned officer (NCO). In addition, there is an intelligence and operations sergeant, with the latter serving as the senior NCO in the team.

Special Forces soldiers experience an intense skill training. This is a multi-month training block with the medical sergeant curriculum taking twelve months. Not only do they have to master their specialty, Special Forces soldiers need to be able to teach these same skills to indigenous forces who often don’t have the experience of a professional military unit. “During this MOS [Military Occupation Code], they’ll continually be reminded that they are teachers as well as warriors,” explains Dick Couch.

  1. Diversity as an operational advantage

“…in the military, especially SOF [Special Operations Forces], and most certainly in Army Special Forces, diversity itself is an operational advantage.” – Chosen Soldier, Dick Couch

Many organizations talk about the importance of diversity. They will highlight the moral importance of a diverse workforce and team. At best, organizations understand the compelling need for diversity. At worst, it’s a politically correct term bantered about without effective execution.

Special Forces are different. They exemplify the operational advantage of having a diverse team of solider all focused on the same mission. Dick Couch highlights this important distinction. “There’s the inherent diversity found in a Special Forces detachment that comes from men with different cultural, economic, and educational background, all of which make the team stronger than the sum of the individual parts.”

“And there’s racial diversity. Too often, the perceived need has to do with a racial or ethnic balance that mirrors our national demographic.” But in Special Forces, “…diversity itself is an operation advantage.”  He stresses the importance of “the more diverse the members of an SF detachment, the better the thinking may go into problem solving in cross-cultural environment.”

In World War 2, we mostly had American soldiers of European ethnicity liberating countries such as the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany.  In the 21st century, our security threats are from places such as Asia and Africa. “Imagine the impact in these tribal and ethnically charged areas when a Special Forces detachment with blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics enters a village,” Couch explains. “Not only do they have the skills to fight and to provide material assistance, they also speak the language and understand and respect customers. They demonstrate that people who are different can live and work together.”

  1. Plan, prepare and perform – Their secret to success is intense preparation

“The Special Forces are not a rapid deployment force; the secret to their success is intensive preparation.” – Linda Robinson, Master of Chaos

The preparation for Special Forces missions is unlike any other organization – military or civilian. I thought I had learned good planning and organization skills as a West Point cadet and junior Army officer. As a result of my experience I even created a planning mneumonic device: ‘Prior Planning Prevents P&%s Poor Performance.’ I thought I was a great planner but I hadn’t seen anything like the way the Green Berets prepare to win.

The Special Forces hallmark method includes physically isolating themselves from other units and members not involved in the mission. In preparing for their famous  post 9-11 Afghanistan mission which I mention in number 1, author Linda Robins observed that “they would eat, sleep, study, plan operations, exercise and practice maneuvers there with no contact with outsiders.” Robinson goes on to say that ‘the men studied the area they were assigned as thoroughly as any Ph.D. student. “They planned, debated, and rehearsed both combat and follow-on operations.”

Their detailed briefing and rehearsals always stress creativity and adaptive learning with a focus on thinking and improvising. Why the extreme approach to planning? Special Forces veteran Tony Schwalm explains that these unique soldiers “…make a small footprint and work in relative isolation. They live or die in their talent for unconventional warfare.”

Andrew Marr, another Special Forces veteran, explains the importance of planning to deal with stress. In his interview on the Elite Man podcast he highlights the fact that you need to plan and prepare to such a degree to be able to deal with amazing levels of stress. Not once or twice, but hundreds of times. “You will default to you foundational level of training,” Marr says.

In this extreme merit-based culture it doesn’t matter who you are (rank, background, ethnicity), only what can you do, in support of your team, your mission and your country. Intensive preparation ensures your best performance occurs during the worst of situations.

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