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


What’s So Special about Special Ops?

For special operations forces, teamwork is ultimately a matter of life and death. Slogans such as “never leave a man behind,” “never give up,” and “that others may live” permeate the SOF culture. In the private sector, the stakes are never this high and never will be. The real problem is that corporate leaders say they want a teamwork culture, but don’t actually make the investments and changes needed to develop one.

Most special operations forces report directly to the U.S. Military Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., which is run by a four-star general. In the field, SOF teams sometimes report through local, conventional force commanders, but within the parameters of their mission, they have a great deal of independence and flexibility, and are thus able to rapidly make decisions and adjust to conditions on the ground without interference or second-guessing.

Although many corporations talk about empowerment in their annual reports, excessive rules and heavy supervisory oversight too often belie the very notion of employee autonomy. There are nonetheless some standout examples, such as Nordstrom and Four Seasons, where staff are authorized to take whatever steps are needed to please a customer or rectify a mistake without getting approval from a supervisor.

In SOF, being able to pull your weight and having a depth of combat experience are more important than rank. To this end, officers and enlisted men go through the special forces qualification programs together, not separately as in other parts of the military. Trained operators usually do not spend a lot of time saluting and saying “sir.” Their respect for one another is rooted more in the recognition of capabilities than in titles. Most special forces operators are what could be called “deep generalists.” They usually have a core specialty — such as weapons, communications, or medicine — but everyone on a six- or 12-man team knows something about everyone else’s expertise, and it’s the job of each specialist to conduct ongoing training for his teammates. Collaboration is enhanced by this shared vocabulary and body of SOF operating practices.

The selection and training practices help ensure that SOF operators are smart, independent, and highly motivated. But they can also be high-strung and thrill-seeking. What, one might ask, keeps them from getting out of control or exceeding their authority? The answer is that direct leadership of SOF is exercised by highly experienced noncommissioned officers who have dozens, if not hundreds, of missions under their belt, and when these individuals speak, everyone listens.

In this respect, the difference between military SOF and a private corporation is stark. Business leaders tend to promote the most experienced field staff out of the field and into management — for example, a great saleswoman may become a district sales manager and a Six Sigma expert may be promoted to operations VP. This is done, in part, because managers expect it: Advancement in the organization is measured by titles, offices, and having more responsibility over other people. The two-tiered command structure in the military — consisting of noncommissioned officers (sergeants) and commissioned officers (lieutenants through generals) means that individuals with vast operational experience can be kept in the field, close to the action — and this is where they want to be.

What Business Can Learn

As noted above, the differences between the civilian and military environments mean that some aspects of the SOF’s high-performance system cannot be reproduced in the private sector. Yet what executive wouldn’t want to field similarly motivated, flexible, and skilled teams in his or her own company? This article has explored a number of important lessons business can learn from the experience of special forces. Here is a summary of the most important goals to which corporate leaders might aspire.

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