Special Operations Leadership: The Mission or the Men? Spec Ops Post 12

In between my plebe (freshman) and yearling (sophomore) years at West Point I, along with my classmates, went to Camp Buckner for our summer training.  Buckner is about ten miles west of the main post, a collection of tin buildings set around the end of Lake Popolopen.  This summer of training was the equivalent of advanced individual training, with an emphasis on leadership fundamentals.

One exercise I found particularly bothersome was when we would “what-if” scenarios without actually being in the situation.  Do you remember playing those philosophy games where you would be asked if Joe is justified stealing the medicine that would save his wife if he couldn’t afford it?  Nice to theorize about but a whole different ball game when real.  One issue raised quite often was which came first:  the mission or the men?  What do you think the West Point approved solution was?

The Mission, of course.  Nothing could get in the way of the mission.

And, as usual, I disagreed.  My basic problem with the approved solution was that it would be very difficult to achieve the mission without the men.  I felt that too often it was assumed that the men would also be on board for mission accomplishment.  If that was true, then what was the point of any leadership training?  The definition of a leader is someone who leads others along a way.  When you consider leading people into combat you run into the fundamental problem that you are leading them into a situation where the possibility of being maimed or killed is significantly higher than normal.  Therefore, the normal, rational person, does not want to go this way.  It is the leader who must get the people to do what they naturally don’t want to do.  Because of that, it seemed to me a flawed assumption that the men would follow.

In the same way, I opened this book with character before goals.  Because without understanding of your own character and others, you can never achieve your goals.

The purpose of leadership

A leader is a person who makes decisions and then implements a course of action.  Since an elite person is someone who takes action, it is implied that an elite person is a leader.

A leader can consolidate and focus the other elite areas.  The first thing a leader must do is set goals.  Then the leader must make a decision leading to a course of action that implements change.  And ultimately, a leader must take care of him/her/self and those around them.

In setting goals, the leader must make sure all goals are aligned and not in conflict.  An interesting example of non-alignment of goals I experienced was as a plebe at West Point.  We were required to memorize large amounts of information, some of it useful, such as the ranges of various weapons, much of it useless, such as how many gallons were in Lusk Reservoir when the water was flowing over the spillway.  One particular piece of information we had to memorize that struck me as strange was called Schofield’s Definition of Discipline.  It begins:

“The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment.  On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army.”

General Schofield

I would be standing in the hallway of the barracks at West Point, braced against the wall by an upperclassman, who would demand I recite the entire definition as a form a hazing.  To me there was an inherent contradiction in the content of what I was saying and the context under which I was saying it.  The two were not aligned.

How to state goals in one sentence and align them was covered earlier in this book.  It is a leader’s job to make sure this is done.  How people change was also covered earlier.  It is a leader’s job to provide the moment of enlightenment and then insure that sustained action is taken that ultimately leads to change.

Leadership variables.

A leader is a conflict resolver.  Not only in aligning goals, but also other variables that can cause conflicts in our lives.  The four key variables a leader must understand and work with are:

  1. Personality/character.
  2. Motivation.
  3. Goals.
  4. Environment.

Available Now!

All are covered elsewhere in this book, but it is our leadership style that will determine how we approach each.  I’m going to cover some well-known military leaders to give you an insight into various leadership styles, and then I’ll discuss the most common type of style inherent in Special Operations.  Now that you have a handle on your own personality, try to see which of these famous figures resonate with you.  See how the personalities of each of these examples strongly affected their leadership styles and vice versa.

The key elements of Special Operations leadership are:

  • Honesty.
  • Respect.
  • Responsibility.
  • Integrity.
  • Team Building.

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on September 24, 2012, in Who Dares Wins Special Operations, Write It forward and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I also remember being hazed as a freshman at Douglass College, Rutgers U. The upperclassmen convinced us to go to an event on a Sunday afternoon and proceeded to trash our rooms. I remember seeing that one girl’s records had been pulled out of the jackets and strewn around the room. This destruction was supposed to show that the sophomores “loved” us. It took hours to put things right — Dealing with losses took much longer. When I complained, one of the sophomores said that if I didn’t like it, I should refrain from hazing when I was a sophomore. I did.

  2. Sounds unpleasant and expensive, Meg. I went to college after a few years of military service, and found it to be easy and enjoyable, for the most part. Sometimes teachers or other students tried to be difficult, but all they really did was provide amusement. I know that you, when you became a sophomore, behaved in a more mature fashion.

    Bob, I had to stop and divide your West Point years from your Spec Ops time, because it seemed–you could address this, if I’ve got this wrong–that the members of your Spec Ops group would automatically be onboard for the mission. They selected themselves and put a lot of effort into achieving their elite status. Wouldn’t they have been the easiest soldiers to lead? Weren’t they already primed for the task? And now that all service members are volunteers, isn’t leading a different kind of job than it was, say, during the Vietnam era, when so many were draftees?

    Looking at civilian life, the whole idea of leadership gets more complex, because it’s harder to tell who’s pre-loaded to do his job and who’s going to give as little as possible to the team’s mission. Your average corporate team isn’t going to face machine gun nests or IEDs; they’re not going to jump out of airplanes or carry heavy loads over miles of tough terrain. In most ways–maybe in all ways–the corporate team has it much easier than the military team. Which Army leadership principles can be adapted to corporate life, and how do you know which ones to try first?

    Thanks so much for these articles. They give me an idea of how the elite person thinks.

    PS: Funny that only women are commenting on this topic. Maybe the men already know all of this.

  3. Totally agree – fantastic to read about others see it so as well.

  4. I disagree with multiple arguments laid out in this article.
    1. When faced with a decision point in which doing what’s best for the mission is not what is best for the men, in most cases, a leader must do the hard thing and accomplish the mission. What would ultimately be best for the men would be to just stay inside the wire, where it’s safe. We have a hard and dangerous job. This is an all-volunteer military. No one forced us to sign up. We signed up to do a dangerous job, so we need to do it. It’s our duty. That’s what we get paid for. Your beef with the concept of ‘mission over men’ is in complete contrast with the SAS slogan you quote: “Who Dares Wins.” I’m sure such glaring contradictions go un-noticed by the civilians who you provide your moto speeches to, but not to a trained professional.

    2. The first rule of leadership is that there ARE NO hard and fast, black-and-white rules to leadership that you can follow ALL the time, every single time. A wise man once said: “Only fools deal in absolutes.” As the saying commonly goes during Tactical Decision Games: “the situation dictates.”

    3. You list the key elements of special operations leadership as:
    Honesty, Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, and Team Building. My question to you is: What makes these traits unique to special operations vice any other military community? Do you not think that those elements are key in infantry or artillery or mechanized leadership as well? I have served in multiple capacities in both the infantry and special operations-type (read Marine Force Reconnaissance) communities and can tell you that leadership is leadership. Basics are basics. A good leader, a good operator, a good soldier, sailor, or Marine is brilliant in the basics. Period. A good ambush patrol is a good ambush patrol, regardless of whether you have a beard or not.

    I think you should read “The Mission, the Men, and Me” by Pete Blaber if you haven’t already. That is a book that lays it out clearly.

    I believe you are on the “SOF sells” bandwagon that is all-too common today. It makes me sick, but I’m sure it effectively aided your book sales. The best SOF Operators (read Tier One) would tell you that leadership is leadership. You don’t get magic leadership powers once you become SOF.
    I think it is sad there are so many folks on the SOF/SOCOM bandwagon. Earn the tab and exploit it. SOF everything! PT books, leadership books. It is sickening. Brilliance in the basics is the hallmark of a professional war-fighting unit. Any good leader (SOF and/or unconventional) knows that.

    • Everyone is entitled to their own view of things. I don’t believe there is only one way to lead. In fact, I’m a fan of adjusting leadership to fit both the people and the situation. I don’t agree that “leadership is leadersip”. There are many different styles. Eisenhower wasn’t Patton. MacArthur was different that both. Known as “Dugout Doug” in WWII he led from the front in WWI carrying only a cane.

      You say it disgusts you, but also have to point out your own background, which is interesting. I do think there are differences in style between units such as Rangers, Special Forces, Marines, SEALs, Spec Ops Air Wing, etc. Some of that has to do with mission.

      As far as “SOF sells” one might consider the web site you’re linked to. Isn’t it selling the idea of the Marines? Aren’t our armed forces spending many millions “selling” themselves? Frankly, I have a much bigger problem with that. Active duty SEALs in a Hollywood movie? Frankly, I think we need a draft, simply because it’s every citizen’s duty. In fact, I’m a fan of Heinlen’s concept of citizenship is earned, not given. Everyone should serve the country in some way for at least a year.

      Thanks for your input and it’s certainly another way of looking at it.

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