How can Special Forces Training boost performance in the workplace?
It’s not uncommon in business to find industry leaders preaching the positive outcomes that a Special Forces mindset and approach can have in corporate performance. Indeed, elite tactical and reconnaissance units have demonstrated high capabilities in mental resilience, leadership under stress, teamwork and adaptability throughout military history. But, how exactly does all this sorcery work? And how can Special Forces lessons be applicable to your company or team’s performance?
It is often said that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their bosses. While the military has its own share of horrible bosses, military leadership remains one of the most efficient models of command. I feel fortunate enough to have met leaders whose character and spirit created a sense of loyalty and commitment that is simply beyond imagination in many companies and large corporations today. There are different ways of defining leadership. The first and most important distinction is that a leader is not a manager. A leader does not get a team of people to achieve a task out of fear or coercion. A leader, instead, gets a group of people to achieve a task because they trust him, they believe in his or her vision and they don’t want to let him or her down. Leadership is about taking care of the people under your command even though you need to get the most out of them in order to achieve the overall goal. A true leader will find the right balance. I have seen leaders put their own lives at risk over and over to protect those under their command, and volunteer to stay on deployment longer in order to send one of their soldiers home to their families earlier or for a longer time. I have heard commanders screaming and fighting their own bosses over a soldier’s wellbeing. Rarely do you see something like this in the corporate world. How would we react as workers if we felt a similar level of empathy and authentic devotion from our boss? I’d like to think we would gladly work harder and go out of our way to help him or her achieve success. Data collected by several employment and corporate research institutes largely agrees with this theory.
2. Decision-making under stress
One of the most important factors of success at any level is decision-making. Making the right decision is not nearly as difficult as doing it under severe stress. Whether it is a deadline, a tough client, or high caliber ammunition flying over your head, stress will impair our judgement and hinder our ability to diagnose a situation with a full perspective.
So, why are some military combat leaders so good at this? Imagine going over an expenses report or mapping out a meeting plan for a very important project. Now imagine the same thing while being constantly hit in the face with a basketball at full speed. Do you see where I am going with this? Well, actually this is not even real life or death stress yet. Not even close…
MIlitary leaders can be fantastic decision-makers under stress because the more experience they have in combat, the more they have had to make those critical decisions under immediate life threatening circumstances. Fear of Violence is perhaps the greatest fear humans can experience and combat operations offer plenty of it.
As an SF operator, I saw my fair share of violent encounters. Some were firefights, some explosions, and some were hand to hand combat scenarios. I noticed one very particular thing, the most experienced operators and leaders were always the first ones to come up with the most clever and sound solutions to very complex problems. The reason being they were able to remain calm. They had so much experience already that they had inoculated themselves to the stress of combat.
Reading all the books on combat would not have provided them with this ability, but experience did. For example, in one of our most important operations during my service, we were tasked to arrest a very violent group of criminals whom intelligence reports placed in a small house in a high risk area. Upon arriving at the premises, we were met by gunfire and explosive devices were thrown at us from a high ground position at the top floor of the house.
We were pinned down in a very narrow alley and could not close the distance to the target. In addition to all of that, one of our team members was injured and trapped in an adjacent house that was blocked off to us by flames which occurred as a result of the explosive and incendiary devices thrown at us. This is a stressful scenario. Imagine making decisions (and quickly) that will determine the faith of your men under this kind of immediate stress.
Our leaders identified the only way to neutralize that threat and move to retrieve and evacuate our injured teammate was to gain high ground from a close by building and engaging our adversaries from a high floor, in order to do that we had to breach into a different building and climb to a high window to create a direct line of fire to the enemy. They then had to devise a way to retrieve and provide immediate medical care to our teammate, perform a secondary secured search at premises, retrieve evidence, and evacuate the team from an extremely hostile area of operations under combat. This may sound simple but it is not, think fast, act decisively, communicate effectively, remain calm, adapt constantly. To say the least, it is extremely demanding to accomplish this and not every person is capable of doing this effectively.
Constant ‘trial by fire’ and practice makes perfect. In the civilian world, we can fail to put things into perspective. “The deadline is stressing me out”, “this task is triggering my anxiety levels”, “I need a mental health day”. These are simple examples, but even at a higher level, when we put things into perspective we realize that it could be so much worse. Most corporate challenges are not a matter of life or death “I need to get this account!”, “We cannot do that to our shareholders!” “We cannot lose this contract!” It is stressful, but if we reframe it, we can approach these challenges more calmly and with more clarity.
The way the military builds and trains decision-making skills whilst under stress is a process that can be applied for corporate leaders and team managers. Teaching the fundamentals of these concepts and exposing our staff to different perspectives helps to amplify their contextual understanding. We can introduce these skills in purpose-built training simulations with induced stress. For example, during the sergeants course each of the students had to lead the team through various tactical scenario simulations that often required making quick decisions under stress. This experience allowed us to develop confidence in our leadership abilities and significantly sharpened our skill set when it came to prioritizing under stress, identifying base principles and quickly and effectively allocating resources in an extremely dynamic environment.
I believe one of the most important character traits the military can teach is flexibility of mind. That is constant and quick adaptation of expectations and resources in a constantly complex and extremely dynamic environment. An always ready mindset. Nothing surprises you, you don’t stop and attempt to revert changes you adapt and you conquer. That is not to say you don’t plan in advance and attempt to mitigate unforeseen circumstances, but you know there will always be surprises.
Nothing goes according to plan in the military. You think you are using a certain route to get to your target, but it’s blocked by two giant trash cans that have been lit on fire. You find a different route now, you think you are training from 08:00 until 17:00, but It’s already 12:00 and you are waiting to hear about a possible scramble operation. You think you are going home today, but a terrorism warning comes in. You thought you could take a nap before the big op, but you can’t, someone needs to pick up some equipment. You thought you could evacuate the entire team via foot on the main road, but now you are stuck with your entire team pinned down by large objects being thrown out of roofs and sporadic gunfire, so you need to find a new route fast.
You are counting on your most trusted leader to be there for critical element of the mission, but he can’t be there, he has been sent on a course for 3 months. Then, the mission gets cancelled. Command tell you to go to the range and get some training, quickly coordinate the range, plan the session, assemble all gear and get going. But then, a new mission comes in. Forget about the training.
Quickly accepting and adapting to changes is the name of the game for military leaders and I believe that is a strong skill to have in the corporate world. It allows someone to keep a cool head and not lose time trying to “resist” changes. Adapt and conquer…
4. Teamwork and camaraderie
There is something about working with a group of people that are so close, they are willing to take a bullet for each other. That just isn’t available in the corporate industry. However, striving to have a group of employees who feel committed to each other’s success and wellbeing has been identified as a major factor in performance. When employees see their colleagues as friends and feel these work-friends truly care about them, employees feel better and this in turn causes them to work more efficiently. When we feel stressed, frustrated, undervalued and at constant risk, our bodies produce damaging hormones such as cortisol which have been found to cause lowered cognitive performance, affect overall body and mental health. Adversely, hormones such as endorphins, which can result from laughing and feeling happy, can cause our bodies and minds to be healthier and more productive.
I often considered this to be the real difference between a military combat job and a corporate one. People are more willing to stick their necks out for others, than they would outside of the military. I always felt, and still do, that my teammates are my brothers and they will do anything to help me and protect me. We’ve had each other’s backs since day one, through brutal training, dangerous missions and dealing with the harsh realities and consequences of active duty combat service together. We see each other more than we see our own families, we know each other better than we know ourselves. I never hesitated putting myself at risk for them and I always felt the same from all of them, even if we had casual arguments and misunderstandings. Like brothers. The more a person can feel a REAL connection with his or her colleagues the more that person can feel safe and happy. This relationship strength can serve as a shield against other issues as well.
Oftentimes, when things were hard and totally miserable, just knowing we had each other and could laugh about our problems together kept us going. A strong sense of community and belonging improves productivity, workplace communication, relationships and overall mental health and resilience. It is an integral part of any team’s success which is why the most elite units in the world place so much importance in a candidate’s ability to socially connect to their teammates, they often value this more than technical and cognitive abilities as this is something that can have a profound impact on the teams performance.
5. Mental toughness
It is widely acknowledged that society today is at its pinnacle of privilege and comfort in human existence. We don’t need to worry about hunting, protection from predators and adversaries, weather, common sickness and more. We used to live half naked, walking barefoot around the jungle or forest and covered with the hide of a large animal we hunted with rocks. Reality is so disturbing nowadays that it is actually scary to think what would happen if even a small part of our technologies went away. Some humans are scared of mildly cold water, sweat and common dirt. Many of us just cannot imagine life without industrial grade air conditioning or heated floors, unlimited hot water and a gourmet meal delivered to our door within 30 minutes of ordering from the comfort of our bed. But our lack of resilience is not only physical, we live in a time where people are offended and even traumatized by natural earthly things such as seeing an animal hunting for food or even just some blood on TV. In fact, any type of violence is considered harmful to our mental health, whereas violence has always been a part of the natural world in which we, as animals, live.
College students and city folk now require “trigger warnings” before any type of language or idea that may lead them out of their comfort zone is presented. Unfortunately life is a constant struggle, That is a fact. While “Anxiety” and “ADD” are now common traits of any normative human, we have forgotten that life on this planet is about resilience. We have all these nice privileges nowadays, because we were able to work and communicate more effectively than any other species on this planet. It certainly wasn’t easy.
How does a weak human behave in the workplace and how much can that cost your organization? How well can a person who is offended by the color of bandaids deal with human interactions and team work in a stressful project? How many mental health days are your employees taking every year? I didn’t even know mental health days existed until I retired from military service. The fact is that we know the following formula is true. In order to achieve success in anything, one must work very hard and overcome many obstacles. How much of that is dependent on mental fortitude and resilience? We need to be mentally flexible, resilient, determined and confident to effectively accomplish tasks better than others. Combat service and particularly Special Forces is all about mental toughness and fortitude, because military leaders identify our biggest weapon is our minds and our IQ is not the best measure for what we can accomplish. Are your employees able to deal with stress? Is their character one that will adapt and conquer, overcome obstacles and work towards a goal with full determination. Can this person work in a team with other characters of different backgrounds or with a variety of clients without being offended by someone different or feeling burnout because it’s been 3 months since their last Instagram vacation? strong minds get the job done.
Regardless of the size of your business or corporation, Special Forces character and leadership skills can be crucial to the success of your business. Having employees that can lead by example, react to any unforeseen circumstances with a strong yet flexible mindset under stress can become a huge advantage in your workforce. When looking for new hires we can perhaps divert the bulk of our efforts from luring candidates with “privileges’ ‘ such as snacks, video games and more comforts and focus on finding people who display strong leadership and resilience. We should also attempt to strengthen our workforce by providing training and education that is conducive to ushering a character that is more consistent with some of the qualities of Special Forces warriors.