During the fall of 2001, a small task force of U.S. military special operations forces arrived in Afghanistan. It was named Task Force Dagger, and its mission was to work with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban and uproot the terrorist training camps they were harboring. In just a few months, fewer than 200 Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Tactics operators expelled nearly 100,000 entrenched Taliban and al Qaeda forces. It was an extraordinary success, and one that drew heavily on the multifaceted capabilities of special operations forces, who can build alliances with local fighters (all Army Special Forces must learn a second language, for example), infiltrate enemy lines, and bring to bear intense firepower in small, mobile units. Many Americans remember the now-iconic photograph, taken during that operation, of a U.S. special operator on horseback, holding the reins of his horse in one hand and a satellite phone in the other. In that picture, he is wearing long hair, a beard, and traditional Afghani robes. It’s a portrait of a modern-day, high-tech warrior equally at ease with Kevlar and leather, comfortable both launching a commando raid and helping local villagers improve their water supply.
The post–9/11 world has brought U.S. military special operations into the limelight as never before. For many observers, there is something inspiring and even mysterious about these highly trained teams of men (like all frontline U.S. combat troops, they are all male) who are motivated to achieve their mission at any cost. In business, we talk about being willing to “walk through walls” to achieve our goals, but special operations teams really do things like that.
So what’s the secret? What’s so special about special operations? Can business professionals learn something from them besides the obvious truisms about the importance of focus and discipline? In fact, the effectiveness of special operations forces is rooted in a carefully designed and comprehensive system of recruiting, training, infrastructure support, leadership, and organizational culture.
Can private-sector organizations emulate these techniques in the same consistent and integrated manner? They can, although we must acknowledge the significant differences between the private sector and the military. For example, in the military you make a long-term commitment (often four or six years in special operations) and cannot just quit because you find a better job. You have a legal requirement to follow the orders of your superior officers. Service members are also, explicitly or implicitly, willing to risk their lives to defend their country.
For the moment, however, let’s set these differences aside and look at what we can learn from the key elements of this high-performance system. As we’ll see, in fact, many special operations practices can be and have been adapted to the corporate world.
The term special operations forces (SOF for short) refers to a wide variety of specialized forces in all four of the armed services. The lessons that follow are based primarily on a study of three major groups of SOF: the Army Special Forces (also known as Green Berets), the Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Tactics units. Their fame is disproportionate to their numbers: There are only about 15,000 special operations servicemen in a military of more than 2 million active-duty and reserve personnel.
Although their missions overlap quite a bit, each of these special operations groups receives slightly different training and has a slightly different focus. Army Special Forces are often used to help train indigenous forces, for example, whereas Navy SEALs tend to be used more for direct action engagements. Air Force Special Tactics forces include Pararescuemen, a specialized group of search-and-rescue trauma paramedics, and combat controllers, who call in airstrikes from the field.