What the SAS taught me about culture

As a former member of the Special Air Service (SAS), I’ve gained invaluable insights into the role culture plays in elite teams. The SAS, known among its ranks as ‘The Regiment,’ was established to combat Hitler’s forces in Africa. Comprising small, highly trained units, the SAS focused on wreaking havoc behind enemy lines and then vanishing undetected. Today, I’m eager to share the lessons the SAS taught me about culture.

The River

Reflecting on my time in the SAS, I’ve realized the profound impact these experiences had on my life and career. 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 mid-winter. The challenge was not just physical; it demonstrated the importance of leading by example, a cornerstone of the culture the SAS taught me about.

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 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. Diving into the frigid water, my body went into shock. Fighting through ice and mud, I reached the river’s midpoint, where the flow was steadier. Asked by a Directing Staff (DS) about the water, I could only whisper. The team laughed and followed suit. This moment underlined the culture the SAS instils: facing fears head-on and pioneering the path for others.

The Culture

Every organization crafts its own distinctive culture. This culture, a complex mix of behaviours, beliefs, and mindsets, defines how we operate. Talented individuals often seek challenges, and the SAS, known for its ‘Elite Magnetism,’ attracts those craving meaningful, albeit risky, endeavours. Indeed, the intensity of our missions once cost a teammate his life during a river crossing.

The SAS experience has taught me that culture, often dismissed as trivial in the business world, actually holds immense power. Many leaders fail to harness this power, overlooking one of the key drivers of sustainable success. Tom Peters aptly put it: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Strategy matters, of course, but it flourishes only in a supportive cultural environment. Interestingly, we managed to revive the teammate who died – a testament to our creed of never leaving anyone behind.

Courage is essential for leading ‘ACE’ teams. A leader may have an elite ACE squad, but guiding such a team demands significant bravery. This ACE model, another lesson from the SAS, emphasizes this aspect of leadership in shaping culture.

The ACE Model

So, the ACE model stands as a guiding framework, encapsulating key components crucial for the success of any team, especially in high-pressure environments like the SAS. This model is built on three pillars: Agility, Creativity, and Empowerment. Each of these elements plays a vital role in shaping a team’s ability to respond to challenges effectively and innovatively. In this expanded exploration of the ACE model, we delve into how each component contributes to a team’s overall success and efficiency.

1. AGILITY: Responding Swiftly to Change

Agility is fundamental in today’s fast-paced world. Teams that embody agility can act independently, adapting swiftly to changing circumstances. This agility is especially crucial in handling VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity). Agile teams are more effective in decision-making and problem-solving, as they can quickly adjust their strategies in response to new information or unexpected challenges. Their ability to act promptly and effectively in high-pressure situations makes them invaluable assets in any organization.

2. CREATIVITY: Fostering Innovation and Problem-Solving

Creativity is at the heart of the ACE model. Team members who are creative by nature bring a unique set of problem-solving skills to the table. They harness their experience and confidence to find innovative solutions to complex problems. Creativity isn’t just about coming up with new ideas; it’s about applying these ideas in practical, effective ways. Encouraging creativity within a team leads to increased engagement and the ability to enter flow states, where members are fully immersed and focused on their tasks.

3. EMPOWERMENT: Autonomy in Decision-Making

Empowerment is the final, crucial component of the ACE model. When team members are empowered, they have the authority and confidence to make decisions that impact the team’s strategy and results. This empowerment is not just about giving team members the freedom to make choices; it’s about trusting them to make the right decisions and supporting them in doing so. Empowered teams are more motivated, responsible, and invested in the outcomes of their work, leading to greater overall effectiveness and success.

The team

In a high-tension escape and evasion scenario, our team, specialized in long-range patrols and often vulnerable to capture, faced a formidable challenge. We were deep in a training exercise, set in a secluded peninsula in the Far East, to outmanoeuvre a line of hunter forces. These forces were not only well-equipped with dogs and infrared cameras but also laid a network of traps and hazards.

The exercise’s design led us to anticipate inevitable capture, which would be followed by an intense 24-hour interrogation phase. As midnight approached, we found ourselves hunkered down in a small hollow, stealthily hidden. The night air echoed with the distant shouts of the hunter forces and the responses of captured soldiers, creating a tense atmosphere punctuated by the sudden flashes of trip flares.

I, leading our patrol, was deep in thought, strategizing our next move. Traditional tactics would have us continuously evade and manoeuvre to avoid capture, but I was contemplating an unconventional approach. Instead of persisting in a predictable pattern of escape, which the hunter forces were likely anticipating, we decided to adopt a radical strategy. Our plan was audacious yet simple: we chose to sleep.

This decision wasn’t just about conserving energy; it was a tactical move to disrupt the expected norms of the exercise. By resting, we not only regained our strength but also positioned ourselves to counteract the hunter forces’ strategies effectively. This approach exemplified our adaptability and readiness to embrace unconventional methods in challenging situations, traits that are essential in high-pressure environments.

At dawn

We took a strategic rest in our secluded hollow, using these precious hours to recharge while the hunter forces tirelessly scoured the area for us. As the first light of dawn broke, we knew it was time to act. Despite being within earshot of the hunter forces, their shouts, and the pained groans of soldiers held in stressful positions for extended periods, we remained undetected.

Executing our plan with precision, we quietly moved in the exact opposite direction of where the hunter forces expected us to be. This diversion tactic paid off. A few hours into our tactical retreat, we stumbled upon a small boat hidden in a cove. Seizing this opportunity, we commandeered the boat, staying low to avoid detection. Skillfully, we paddled out to sea, manoeuvring around the hunter forces’ perimeter.

Once clear of their line, we rowed back to shore, blending seamlessly into local life. Prepared for such scenarios, we had civilian clothes on hand. Changing into these, we took a few hours for some well-deserved rest in the town. Our return to the exercise zone was nothing short of cinematic. Just one minute before the exercise concluded we made a grand entrance in taxis, armed with shopping bags and souvenirs. The sight that greeted us was striking – rows of dishevelled, exhausted soldiers from various nations, all sitting in stunned silence, hands on their heads, as they gaped at our unexpected and unconventional return.

The boss

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, allow the team to make their own decisions and defend against 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.

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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.