The 5 SOF Truths of Leadership

July 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

When I joined the military in my early twenties, I wasn’t quite sure what “Special Operations Forces” (SOF) meant, but it didn’t take long for my new community to educate me. Some of our hardcore “green beret” colleagues operated as independent four man teams conducting unconventional warfare operations. My role in Civil Affairs had more to do with liaising with and advising local civilian leadership in foreign areas. I also didn’t get far into my initial training before I started hearing about the five “SOF Truths.” No matter what else we were training on, we always came back to them.

I immediately believed the five SOF Truths could hold up as a leadership doctrine for just about any organization, military or not. Below is my slightly amended version.

Special Forces Jumping from Plane

Humans are more important than hardware.

No matter what type of gadgets, technology, systems or equipment your organization has access to, people are always the number one resource. Since any organization’s mission requires the ability of a team to work together, leaders must focus on the human elements first. People and results are compatible, not competitors. As many SOF operators say, “Mission first, people always.” What this looks like practically speaking is taking time to understand one another’s challenges, needs and objectives in respectful and professional ways before, during and after stepping out.

Quality is better than quantity.

When it comes to leadership, quantity doesn’t necessarily lead to effectiveness. In fact, sometimes it can have the opposite effect. One organization I consulted had a director whose philosophy was that the more people who joined the (non profit-producing) department, the more they would be able to accomplish. The unfortunate result was the team had very little clarity on who was supposed to do what and quickly became a bloated expense to the organization. Eventually the workforce had to be cut back down to size. Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy frequently said to focus on getting better, and if you do, your customers will demand that you get bigger.

When it comes to building a leadership team, a small team of highly capable, focused and committed leaders is always preferable to a large group of generalists.

Leaders cannot be mass produced.

If highly effective leaders could be produced simply by taking a course, everyone would be enrolled on day one of each new job. The reality is that leadership development is time consuming, labor-intensive and takes quite a lot of individual attention. Sure, we need leadership programs, but as Jack Welch says, 70% of a leader’s role is developing the people around him or her. Leadership development depends on an organization’s leadership infrastructure. It also depends on the ability of effective leaders to impart their lessons learned to new leaders and work with them at each stage in the journey. Does this take longer? Absolutely. There is no shortcut when it comes to effective leadership development.

Competent leaders cannot be created after emergencies occur.

When the need for leadership arises, it’s too late to begin the development process. This requires a proactive approach to leader development, instead of reactive. How deep is your leadership bench? If your top leaders goes down, who will take their place? Being promoted into a new leadership role is not the time to learn to lead. That would be a miserable experience for leaders and followers alike! Each person needs to be prepared to perform and ready to lead no matter where they sit in an organization. Then, regardless of business as usual or crises, nothing will stand in the way of flawless execution.

Most operations require outside support.

This truth can be a hard one to accept, as was initially the case with the SOF community. But very rarely does any team act completely independently. If you are an Army special operator, you still need backup support. If you are a special agent, you still need professional staff support. If you are a lawyer, you still need a paralegal. If you are a loan officer, you still need an administrator. If you are a physician, you still need a nurse. All of these roles require additional built-in infrastructure in order to operate effectively. No one operation occurs in a vacuum. The presence of a support function shouldn’t reduce the accomplishment of the team on the front lines of any operation. The sooner we learn to acknowledge that everyone in the organization has a specific role that contributes to the success of ONE team with ONE mission, the easier it becomes for everyone to work together.

You can reference the original SOF Truths here on the Special Operations Command website.

Which SOF Truth does your organization need most right now?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.