What the SCS taught me about culture
2016 was the 75th anniversary of the Special Air Service. The ‘Regiment’ as it is known colloquially by its members, was created to counter the threat of Hitler’s aggression in Africa. The SAS was made up of small, highly trained and motivated teams whose strategy was to operate behind enemy lines with the aim of creating havoc, fear and destruction, then slipping away undetected. Today I want to share what the SAS taught me about culture.
I took some time reflecting on what lessons I had learnt, applied and transferred to my life and work as a result of my time being a member of this illustrious ‘Regiment’.
Create the culture and they will follow: The SAS selection process is a highly demanding affair which challenges candidates physically, mentally and emotionally. During part of my selection, I was picked to swim across a river first. It was 5 am in the morning in mid-winter.
The water was frozen at the edges and we were to swim across with just shorts on. Nobody was sure whether it was even possible to navigate across the frozen, murky looking river. The Directing Staff (DS) thought it better to send one man and if he made it across alive – they’re allowed to lose a few people occasionally – then they would send the rest of the candidates. A really stark introduction and was one of the incidents which contributed to what the SAS taught me about culture.
State of shock
Not wanting to appear timid, I ran toward the ice, eventually collapsing into the blackness below. The coldness stunned my body into a state of shock. I had to fight my way across the ice and sucking mud below, eventually reaching mid-stream where the water flowed more freely. One of the DS asked me how the water was. Trying to look casual I went into a backstroke and attempted to say; “the water’s fine”. I then realised that I hadn’t managed to take a breath yet so all that escaped from my lips was a hoarse whisper. The DS team laughed and sent the rest in.
What makes people volunteer for something like this, after all, the SAS don’t need to hire recruitment consultants?
Every organisation has its own unique culture. A culture is a set of deeply embedded, self-reinforcing behaviours, beliefs, and mindsets. These factors determine ‘the way we do things around here.’ Talented people like to challenge themselves. They are drawn by the ‘Elite Magnetism’ of the SAS. They want to be part of a team engaged in meaningful work. Even to the point of endangering their lives – one guy did actually die on the river crossing.
What the SAS taught me about culture is that it is often seen as a fluffy, soft component in business. Its powerful benefits are sometimes lost on ineffective leaders. It is, however; one of the most important drivers of long-term, sustainable success. As Tom Peters famously said:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
It’s not that strategy isn’t important, it is. But a strategy will only succeed if the organisation’s culture can support it. By the way, we brought the dead guy back to life again. You never leave one of your own behind.
A leader needs courage when leading “ACE” teams and individuals: A leader might believe that with an elite squad of ACE members he can achieve a lot. But it takes a lot of courage to lead a team like this. ACE is one of the models the SAS taught me about culture.
There are three simple components of ACE.
The team and its members can act independently which gives it the ability to handle VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) more effectively. An agile business team can react with more clarity and deal with clients more effectively in the moment as they are the eyes and ears on the ground.
ACE team members are creative by nature. Team members are experienced. They are confident about solving their own problems. Nothing drives up creativity and flow states, more than the act of being creative.
Having all this agility and creativity is only an advantage if the individuals can act on their own volition. They are empowered to make decisions which will influence future strategy and results.
A team of us were on an escape and evasion phase of a large multi-national exercise for ‘prone to capture’, Long Range Patrol troops. We were dropped off on a peninsula of land somewhere in the Far East. We were supposed to move toward a line of hunter forces who were using dogs, infra-red cameras and all manner of trips and trip hazards.
The idea was that we would not actually be able to make it past the line of hunter forces and would spend 24 hours being interrogated. It was around midnight. We were hunkered down in a little hollow. We could hear screams and shouts emanating from the hunter forces and captured soldiers. Trip flares interspersed the blackness. I was in charge of the patrol at this point. I was thinking about zigging whilst the rest zagged. In other words, do the exact opposite of what the other teams were doing and what the hunter forces were hoping for. Our plan; go to sleep.
We slept in the little hollow for a couple of hours and let the hunter force get tired of looking for us. As dawn approached, we made our move. We were so close we could hear the hunter force shouting and soldiers groaning from being in stress positions for hours. We moved off tactically… in the opposite direction.
After a couple of hours, we came across a small boat in a cove. We commandeered the boat and keeping low, paddled out to sea and around the line of hunter forces. Then we made it past, rowed back into the land, and hitched a ride with some locals into town. We always carried civilian clothes for such situations, so got changed and went for a few hours R&R. At one minute before the end of the exercise, we rocked up in taxis with shopping bags and souvenirs. Around us were lines of dishevelled and thoroughly miserable-looking soldiers from several nations. All were sat with hands-on heads staring, open-mouthed, at us.
Our ‘boss’ waved us over and the officer in charge of the exercise asked him who we were. He explained. The officer went purple and stifled an explosion of rage. In the heated discussion that followed, we overheard him accuse us of cheating, disobeying orders, missing the point of the exercise, practically everything under the Sun. Our ‘boss’ didn’t raise his voice once or miss a beat, just explained that what we had done was exactly what we were trained to do and what was expected of us. It took courage to defend us as he did.
It takes a courageous leader to let go of control, to actually allow the team to make their own decisions and furthermore, defend the attacks that come from the status-quo. High performing individuals and teams, the mavericks of this world, are often attacked when they’re busy disrupting the world of comfort zones. But in the SAS they’re the ones who make a difference.
Martin is an international coach and in his recent book ‘From Mercenaries to Missionaries’, he shares three fundamental principles of leading high performing teams and the three core skills elite teams need to operate successfully.
His work is based on personal research combined with experiences in the Special Forces and training special project groups worldwide to combat terrorism and narcotics smuggling in the commercial sector.
He helps business owners become business leaders and helps them design, develop and lead teams which are agile, creative and enterprising.