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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


What’s So Special about Special Ops?

Special operations forces use an attraction strategy to get access to the best raw talent in the military. Their elite status is a magnetic draw for young men who want to prove themselves and be among the best. The average education level of special operations recruits is above that for conventional forces, and it is not uncommon to find individuals with advanced degrees from top colleges or managerial experience in a corporation. The exclusive branding of special operations draws many recruits at the front end, where a high percentage are turned down before even being given a chance in the selection program.

When it comes to recruitment, SOF units are not unlike highly desirable employers in their ability to attract the best. Their selectivity has another positive effect: It is well documented that the steeper the hurdle to get accepted into a group, the more loyalty and commitment you have to it once you’re in. This certainly motivates the bankers at elite firms like Goldman Sachs, where the prospective status, pay, and influence that go along with being a partner propel them to work long hours and develop extraordinary loyalty to the organization if and when they do reach that elite inner circle.

Total Training

The training that SOF personnel go through is a key to their success in real missions. Their training is in-depth, realistic, and repetitive, and it is run by the most experienced SOF operators — not classroom-schooled educators. This type of training puts true meaning into the overused term total immersion. If you add up the different phases of training that SOF candidates must go through, including specialized courses (such as high-altitude free-fall parachuting) and advanced training in their units, it may take two or three years at minimum to produce a fully developed SOF operator.

Five important aspects of SOF training reveal why it’s so effective, and also why much of the one-off, classroom-based training conducted by private-sector companies is of limited value.

1. Winnowing. SOF training is designed to eliminate all but the most determined and qualified individuals. A hundred highly motivated, intelligent, and experienced men might start the Navy SEALs eight-week Phase I course, for example, and usually only about 20 or 25 successfully pass just that first phase — a ratio that is also typical for the other services’ special forces selection programs. If during a test you do 59 pushups instead of 60, you may get a second chance, but if you fall short again, you’re sent back to a conventional unit. That is a vital point: The Navy doesn’t stigmatize these men or kick them out, but rather deploys them in other areas and tries to commend them and make them feel good about just trying out to be a SEAL. In corporations, there is often no “Plan B” when someone drops out of a program or fails to make a promotion, and a disappointment or setback may very well mean the employee leaves the company altogether.

Many trainees are eliminated during the initial selection phase, but others continue to be dropped during later training phases — there’s a continual process of culling. This winnowing process can be seen as never-ending. Colonel Wesley Rehorn, a veteran Army Special Forces leader who heads the U.S. Joint Forces Special Operations Command, comments that “the system is very intolerant of mistakes, even for someone who is 20 years into his career. I may accept an error of commission, but rarely an error of omission.”

2. Deliberate practice. A second characteristic of the training is that it embodies the concept of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice entails isolating the specific elements of performance that will enable you to excel at an activity, repeating them over and over again, and getting objective feedback. A great deal of research supports the notion that intensive, deliberate practice — not innate talent — is the secret of exceptional performance. An Army Special Forces weapons specialist, for example, must master nearly 50 different weapons systems during 65 days of intensive training.

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