From a Special Forces Perspective: The Four Elements of Leadership

Many leadership parallels can be drawn between business and the military. Gregory Hartley translated his experience in the U.S. Army Special Forces into a full time career as a director and consultant to companies. Hartley shares with the essentials of leadership.

The mechanics of team leadership involves four elements: understand your role, keep the team unified, do not fall victim to deference, and deal with differences.

Understand your role

“Lead” is a synonym for “direct.” In contrast, “manage” is synonymous with “control.” Richard Cartwright, a retired Special Forces soldier and one of my mentors in SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) school, used to rail about the Army creating managers, not leaders. The result: people got good at either ordering, “Do what I tell you to do” or automatically responding to orders. That is not the Special Forces way.

Leadership requires the ability to build a team that can shine. Your glory comes from their success. The leader’s role is to facilitate what people on his team do well, to remove obstacles blocking members of the team from performing effectively.

A financial executive who becomes the chief executive does not abandon her original expertise, but she does abandon the role and embrace the role of mentor. If she doesn’t, she will smother her own baby.

If an executive moves too far in the opposite direction, the result will be just as deadly. The person who clears obstacles for his team and obstinately protects them “no matter what” will lose sight of their shortcomings and lose sight of the mission.

Mission first and people always. If you fail in the mission, your people will be destroyed.

Keep the team unified

Once you have the team bonded, stay alert for any sign of division. When you notice it, use the tools you have relied on throughout your rise to the top to strengthen interpersonal bonds. If that means orchestrating situations in which your people bond against you, then do it–but do it in a way that makes the condition temporary. It’s an effective technique, but it is potentially dangerous.

Do not fall victim to deference

Deference is a double-edged sword. If you get too accustomed to having people defer to you, you stop growing as a leader. It will strain, if not destroy, your credibility.

Sometimes you have to admit that you don’t have all the answers. Scrupulous reliance on other experts is another way to bond your team as you establish yourself as a self-aware leader.

Deal with differences

Those of us teaching at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (SWIC), which houses the SERE school, were part of the last training challenges that candidates faced before earning their full status in Special Forces. One of those tests is called Robin Sage. The aim of it is to immerse them in a multi-day exercise in which they operate with native people as they would on a real mission.

Trainers create an artificial culture for it. When I participated, the training team was composed of Arabic speakers so we simply used our Arabic throughout the exercise. The SF candidates didn’t know Arabic so the language sill gave us a perfect opportunity to simulate a foreign culture.

The Special Forces people had duty to comply with the bogus societal and religious rituals we had concocted. They had to think through the convoluted stuff because a foreign culture will always have some aspects that seem ridiculous to outsiders. As soldiers in the Special Forces, they would have to exhibit cooperation and leadership with people who didn’t think how they thought or behave the way they behave.

Even if you have handpicked the people around you and everyone seems to speak the same language, nobody thinks exactly the same way you do. You may follow the same process and have the same physiological attributes, but you and the other guy are different. And some of what he does may seem ridiculous to you.

If you are going to deal with the differences, you need to be able to identify them. And then, you have to decide whether each is a source of strength for the organization, has a neutral effect, or is detrimental to the group and its operation.


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