Lessons on Leading Through Chaos from U.S. Special Operations
As the crises of 2020 wear on, the unique skills of our country’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) are becoming more and more valuable in the private sector. Their adaptability, excellent judgment, and wide range of training and experience makes SOF veterans well suited to lead in tumultuous times. Companies that want to succeed amid ongoing volatility should take example from the SOF community by seeking to be flexible, de-siloed, and focused on hiring for hard-to-teach skills like emotional intelligence. Interviews with some 20 veterans and coaches revealed the skills that this elite community can bring to American businesses.
“I’m sure the other candidate checks all the boxes,” a veteran of the U.S. Navy SEALs told his final-round interviewer at a financial services company. “But here’s one thing I can tell you about me: There’s not a single situation that will occur at this business that will make me feel uncomfortable.” With that answer, the SEAL won himself a job, beating out a traditionally better-qualified candidate with an MBA from a leading business school.
The American business community’s discovery of the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) hasn’t come a moment too soon. Made up of elite warriors from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines, the Special Operations Forces have formed the centerpiece of U.S. battlefield strategy since the end of the Cold War. The community’s ranks include legendary units like SEAL Team Six and Delta Force. They’re accustomed to high stakes, dangerous geographies, and fast learning. They deploy in units of all different sizes and do jobs ranging from precision strikes against terrorists to intelligence collecting to setting up local government institutions in collaboration with civilians.
A few months ago, we set out to write a Harvard Business School case about a nonprofit called the Honor Foundation, founded six years ago to help SOF veterans transition into civilian life. In writing the case, we interviewed some 20 veterans and coaches to understand the skills that this elite community can bring to American businesses. As we did, we noticed a clear fit between the SOF skill set and the uncertain world we all inhabit today.
Despite their unique qualifications, we found that when these MVPs of the U.S. military retire, usually between the ages of 35 and 45, they’ve long ended up in jobs that undervalue their unique tactical training, teamwork, and leadership skills. Less than a decade ago, only 13% of the 2,500 special operators who transitioned every year had civilian jobs lined up only a few months before their transition. Those who had found jobs had salaries averaging under $90,000, frequently working for private security firms or agencies like the U.S. Secret Service.
But that’s beginning to change.
Even prior to the economic and health shocks of Covid-19, the acronym “VUCA” — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — had become shorthand for the operating circumstances today’s businesses face. Amid a pandemic, executives are finally realizing the importance of bringing outsiders who are comfortable dealing with the unexpected onto their teams.
As these crises wear on, the singular and eminently portable skills of our country’s highest-trained servicepeople are becoming more and more valuable, and more veterans like the SEAL we just mentioned are getting the job. Here are a few things the SOF community knows about operating, leading, and succeeding in a VUCA world that American businesses need to know.
Flexible Organizations Adapt Better to Crises
Special operators spend their whole careers preparing for the unexpected. In SOF units, hierarchies are both flat and flexible, with little difference in responsibility between ranks or even between enlisted and officers. In the words of the Navy SEAL Ethos, “We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates and accomplish the mission.” This philosophy, ingrained through training, allows units to put the fittest operators for each individual task at the front and builds interoperability between units.
The result of this organizational flexibility is what General Stanley McChrystal — an Army special operator and leader of the Iraq “surge” in 2007 — refers to as a “team of teams.” Chris Fussell, a former special operator and a current top executive, explains:
Instead of leading a top-down, highly efficient bureaucracy, we began to lead ourselves as a network. Our mandate was to scale the effectiveness of small, elite teams onto the enterprise level. Instead of many individual leaders running many individual teams, we began to connect ourselves as a broad network of units.
American businesses can learn a lot from this flexibility. In March, when Covid-19 upended the way most of us worked and lived, many businesses realized that their leadership hierarchies and job descriptions needed to change, and fast. Employees working with in-person product or service delivery found their projects deferred and were forced to learn new skills. IT functions suddenly found themselves elevated to core strategic positions. Several months into the crisis, most companies are still figuring out how to adapt, and belatedly wishing that — like the SOF community — their organizations had been built to adapt. Going forward, all organizations will need to learn how to adapt quickly.
Flexibility Requires an Informed Team and Good Individual Judgment
Many companies, like the non–special operations military, operate on the assumption that the power to make decisions (and the information required to do so) should be concentrated at the top of the organization.
From the start of their training, special operators are taught the opposite: Every member of the team needs to be individually equipped to make life-or-death decisions in the battlefield if called upon. Since special operators deploy in groups of any size from two or three to thousands, information is shared regularly and widely. “Teams share as much as they can on intelligence, operations, out-of-the-box ideas, and contingency plans, writes Chad Storlie, a retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel. “They believe in equality regardless of rank, experience, and skill, so they work constantly to share, update, and listen to new information and ideas.”
Sharing information enables team members to divide tasks without losing sight of the whole. According to one former Navy intelligence analyst we spoke with, “We brief the SEAL teams on the battlefield situation, but we also rely on them to collect information for us as they go about their work.” Such symbiotic relationships require the SEALs in the field to have an understanding of both the overall picture and the intelligence analyst’s job.
Building organizations as flexible and de-siloed as the SOF community requires another element that’s as elusive as it is essential: Impeccable individual judgement. In SOF units, judgement is taught through grueling, high-stakes training and battlefield experience, but it’s also selected for through rigorous cognitive tasks and group exercises demonstrating quick thinking and understanding of both the tactical and strategic levels.
Many businesses have sought to implement similar good judgement in their own hiring, whether by implementing emotional-intelligence or problem-solving tests in the interview process or, as Sir Andrew Likierman put it, asking questions that look beyond an applicant’s successes to how they achieved them — for example, “How did they get where they are and whom do they listen to? What kind of training have they done? Do they like to challenge their own assumptions?” These are all great questions, but it may be that the best shortcut to emulating SOF-quality judgement at your company is to hire more SOF veterans.
Resilient Leaders Tend to be Generalists, Not Specialists
Rob Newson is VP of strategy and vision for the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. He’s also a retired 30-year veteran Navy SEAL officer. His career with the SEALs saw him posted to upwards of 20 different assignments, ranging from commanding a unit tasked with training Yemeni partners to drive back al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula to standing up the Navy SEALs’ in-house intelligence unit, Special Reconnaissance Team 1, to working on a joint counterterrorism think tank reporting to the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
The breadth of Newson’s experience is typical of a special operator. While some enlisted SOF fighters may not have held strategy jobs like he did, most have fought in several distinct theaters on different continents and trained in a range of specialties. Newson considered how his SEAL career had prepared him to help lead with the 76ers: “I often had to lead without having too much direct authority or technical expertise, mostly by building trust and collaborating. I became an expert in leading across teams and communicating within an organization. At the 76ers, that’s just what they wanted.”
Newson’s wide exposure makes him adaptable to unpredictable situations, acutely able to perceive the limits of his own knowledge and expertise, and an expert in getting help when he needs it — the profile of a great crisis manager. He became the 76ers’ point person for coronavirus response within his first few months on the job. This meteoric rise, he says, is hardly unique: “Nearly every SEAL I know who’s gone into industry has become Mr. Coronavirus over the last few months, and that’s no accident. For a group of people who made their careers in crisis management, this is our ideal platform.”
Conversation Is an All-Powerful Tool for Building Trust
By virtue of being both individual deciders and team players, special operators are trained to communicate clearly and effectively. Over the last two decades, they have increasingly been called upon to be America’s war zone diplomats, collecting information, training and equipping local partners, and finding common ground with skeptical civilians in some of the world’s most disadvantaged places. These same skills, unsurprisingly, serve them well in the world of business.
Jerome King, an Australian-born U.S. Marine Raider who deployed multiple times to the Sahel and Maghreb regions of North Africa during the Global War on Terror, frequently found himself negotiating with local leaders, often navigating across languages, cultural barriers, and complex situations. Going to a third-world country and effecting change through advising, assisting, and accompanying local forces on operations, he says, instilled the communication skills that now make him effective in building bridges with clients in investment banking with UBS.
Almost a decade ago, one of us (Boris Groysberg) and Michael Slind published Talk, Inc., arguing that organizations powered by conversation are better able to adapt in an unpredictable, changing environment. In a VUCA world, sometimes conversation is all we have left. Few populations understand this better — and are more prepared to bring it into the workplace — than the Special Operations Forces.
Academic Degrees Are Not Everything
In 2009, Lyndsea Warkenthien, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Huron, South Dakota, joined the Navy as an intelligence analyst. Over the next 10 years, she served on sea and land, first tracking pirate ships in the Persian Gulf and then doing intelligence fieldwork and briefings in support of the Navy SEALs. After 10 years of deployments, she entered Stanford University as a freshman in 2019. As she prepares for a career at the nexus of intelligence and technology, she knows that her decade with the Navy gave her a leg up that no amount of collegiate education ever could: “I became great at evaluating information. Doing this job, you get to know what misinformation looks like and how it can seem real — how information warps over time, like a game of ‘telephone.’ You don’t learn that in class. You have to experience it.”
As job markets have grown more competitive over the last few decades, employers have grown more fixated on advanced degrees. Frequently, however, they realize after a few bad hires that many of the skills employees were taught in grad school (or even college) can be taught easily on the job, while less-tangible skills like judgement or emotional intelligence are far harder to teach. The Covid-19 pandemic is a great time for employers to reevaluate what they’re hiring for. Amid a climate of uncertainty, it’s best to rely on someone who has been in the arena — who has proven that they have those harder-to-teach skills — whether or not they hold an elite degree.
One last lesson the SOF community can teach businesses is the importance of individual character. No business needs to be convinced that character counts, yet they frequently struggle to hire for it. In the words of the SEAL Ethos, “I serve with honor on and off the battlefield. The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men. Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.”
In a VUCA world, companies have to be more creative and have less margin for error than ever before. Focusing on organizational flexibility, information sharing, communication, and hiring for good judgment, a generalist outlook, real-world experience, and personal character will help businesses adapt to and thrive in tumultuous times. So, if you happen to be sitting across the desk from a SOF veteran and ask them, “What can you bring to this company?” and they reply — as special operators are wont to do — “Whatever you need,” believe them.