High Performance Habits of the Special Forces #1

‘Happy People Do Good Work’

Far removed or not…this article is about my experience of high performance in the Special Forces and where business may just be missing the point…

Ok nothing ground breaking and perhaps an obvious statement but for people to perform at their best, for them to be engaged and do good work they need to be in a good space. Yes they may just ‘do enough’ and keep their head above water, they may put in their days work and fight through to the weekend. But for them to really produce, to innovate, to bring positivity to the workplace and move the needle of performance they need to feel good or at the very least ok on a consistent basis.

So why do so many organisations, teams and leaders get it wrong – Reactivity under pressure? Lack of awareness? Misguided ideas on what is going to motivate people?

Having been asked to talk and describe leadership and high performance from my previous world in the Special Forces my opening statement is always pretty much the same…for all the glory and dramatic back drop of Special Forces missions, it all routes back to people. Special Forces operators are still people and the number one route to sustained high performance is to build the culture of a relationships based organisation. The output of the organisation, in the case of the Special Forces, may be successful mission execution but this is really driven over the long term by the bonds that teams and leaders create.

Yes in the thick of action people need to be decisive and take action to get the job done, but there is years of training and planning to back up the result of elite performance. Special Forces or not, operators still need to turn up at their place of work everyday and interact with their colleagues to work as teams to hone their craft and build deep levels of trust.

‘Soft Skills…’

Getting things done in the majority of the military (outside of basic training) and particularly in the Special Forces is not about ‘barking orders’ as some people might think. It is about leaders knowing their people. This takes what some people may call ‘soft skills’ where people are trusted, valued and given freedom to act. It takes honesty, integrity and courage to have transparency and learn from mistakes in order to push towards greater limits of excellence and performance.

The Special Forces world is obviously not a ‘fluffy’ world and these skills are not ‘soft skills’ at all. My experience has shown me quite the opposite. The most effective teams, the one’s that really gelled together, were almost always the one’s who could master these skills and attributes.

People will take the p**s

In the business world when I discuss this with leaders and corporate teams, people intuitively understand and mostly agree with this ethos. However there seems to be a gap between what they practice and what they preach. There is mostly reticence to ‘take the brave step’ and give people control and freedom to act. Leaders often take the path of least resistance and continue with old patterns of behaviour (particularly in times of stress – which can be a constant for many organisations in todays business world).

Often the feedback is either that they need to employ a ‘stamp down on people’ mentality to avoid people ‘taking the p**s’ (bluntly put) or from employees that the main focus of senior leadership teams is to (misguidedly) control staff in an effort to increase performance.

There is a huge lesson for business to take away from the time tested high performance of the Special Forces. The environment is different but many of the core principles of an effective organisation are the same – short term compliance from staff does not trump the building of long term team and organisational cohesion and alignment.

Some forward thinking companies are really embracing this way operating (see Google Project Aristotle or Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Navy SEALs) where the former (Google) highlight Psychological Safety as the most essential ingredient to creating high performance teams. Meanwhile Dalio (one of the worlds foremost investors) likens his company, Bridgewater Associates, to ‘intellectual Navy SEALs’ and talks of the relationships they build to be at the top of their game.

Senior leadership teams then have a choice. Do they continue on the trodden path or do they find the courage to break the mould. Do they step into the unknown, relinquish tense control and trust in the ability and motivation of their staff to increase performance. There will undoubtedly be some people who do take the p**s but most people will feel a new found sense of purpose, drive and sense of achievement with growing autonomy over their planning and actions.

Not a Free-For-All…

As a last point to be clear, this is not a free-for-all. People still need clarity around what they are being asked to do and why (in-line with the leaders intent). They still need to be briefed accordingly so that they can then act effectively (they should still be held accountable for poor performance). They still need the boundaries of the brief, timescales and output measures etc. This clarity will give them the support they need to act. Taking action and tapping into their reserves of initiative will empower them, help them grow and possibly even become a leader themselves.

For the company or organisation the longer term benefits will be numerous. The ‘whole will become greater than the sum of its parts.’ There will be continued challenge (that’s life!) but there will be cohesion where there was once fractured lines of understanding and commitment. Less turn over of staff (and training costs), positive focus and ‘thinking environments’ where people can problem solve together in order to get the job done. Toxic stress levels can be reduced and the root cause of disharmony and dissatisfaction can be addressed.

So what is your work environment like? Do leaders give control to aid performance? What small measures could you take to move the needle..?

#1 – Relationship Based Organisations

Richard Mann is a former member of the UK Special Forces (Special Boat Service – SBS), turned high performance coach and leadership consultant. 

3rg work with people and organisations who are serious about performance. We offer practical, experienced based solutions to complex business challenges. Through our range of leadership courses, coaching programmes and workshops we help organisations build high performance, winning teams. 




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