What the SAS taught me about leadership

Who dares wins… But not always!: The founder of the SAS, David Stirling, was convinced that small groups of soldiers involved in covert operations were more effective than whole platoons. He also realised he had a job to reach, let alone convince, the higher echelons of power of his ideas. Sporting crutches for a broken leg caused by an earlier parachuting accident, Stirling climbed a fence into the Middle East HQ compound. Being chased by guards, he eventually managed to come face-to-face with the Deputy Commander Middle East General Ritchie. Stirling did manage to convince Ritchie and after ‘relieving’ equipment from other units the SAS was formed. What Stirling started eventually made me realise what the SAS taught me about leadership.

Entrepreneurial adventures

Stirling’s entrepreneurial spirit worked for him in this situation but there are plenty of times when daring exploits have come to a sticky end. Timing and luck are as big a component of success as ideas and motivation. There were plenty of great soldiers on my selection who failed the course due to injury. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with them, they were just unlucky or they got caught in terrible weather conditions.

Every entrepreneurial adventure needs ample dollops of both courage and serendipity. By all means, have a go but get to the reality as quickly as possible. As TED speaker and founder of Idealab, a start-up incubator, points out, timing is the biggest predictor of business success.

Don’t take failure personally, just do it cheaply. You’re only a failure when the times you get knocked down overtakes the number of times you get back up. The SAS motto: ‘Who dares Wins’ is true, but only if you dare to adapt and keep going in the face of defeat.

Chaos theory rules

Chaos Theory Rules OK?: On the universal life cycle, shifts happen. One day everything seems to be going in your favour, the next minute the bottom drops out your business or the market. Actually, it doesn’t just happen it’s been building up. But not many people bother to take note when the signs appear or even look.

With success comes certain fears and delusions arise to support those fears. So for instance, when the banking crisis appeared on the horizon, people shifted into denial. In fact, we’re still there now. But just saying that can make you really unpopular as the whistle-blowers found out as they were being sacked and smeared even though they were right.

The universe is run by chaos theory which is when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. There are just too many influences to control and be able to predict precisely what’s going to happen. An approximate summation of the present can be wildly wrong down the line. The SAS can have a well thought out plan which turned to chaos practically as soon as they’ve landed on the ground.


That’s why you need to be able to handle VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Volatility, according to McKinsey’s Economic Snapshot for September 2015, is on the rise across the world and is cited more often than anything else as being a threat to businesses. Actually, when execs don’t think volatility is a threat, that’s when they’re buying into the delusion of certainty.

A patrol would always consider the variables that might introduce themselves when planning missions. They always have an ‘Actions-On’ plan. They try to consider every eventuality and think about what could go wrong. Finally, they then formulate a set of plans e.g. actions on being ambushed at X, ‘Shoot ‘n’ Scoot’ to RV Y.

Mostly not enough time is spent on the preparation phase in the planning of what could go wrong so when it does happen, it’s hailed as a big shock, which wasn’t really a shock at all; it’s just Chaos doing its thing.

The seal of effective leadership

The SEAL of effective leadership: Leadership should be considered a verb, not an entitlement. Leadership is vital in the firefight, you want one person leading the way so that there is no confusion. But these are the signs of great leadership.

1. Shared

Anybody in a patrol could lead a mission dependent on experience and skills or it’s ‘just their turn’. When you have a high performing team, everyone is treated as an adult. Rank or position was not that important, skills and experience count for more. Many an officer had his ear chewed off for presenting a rubbish plan by somebody of lower rank. By sharing leadership duties, it also makes everybody more empathic. You’ve been on both sides of the coin so you tend to be more respectful which boosts overall morale and performance.

2. Engaging

A team would always be involved at the earliest opportunity as it gave them more time to come up with suggestions later when orders were being formulated. Any errors in communication were spotted because everybody’s involved from the start-up.

3. Advocacy

Everybody gets a say in what’s happening because collective intelligence is more effective than an individual. Once the orders are being given by the patrol leader, most people already know what’s coming and so it makes the orders easier to remember too.

4. Legitimate

A lot of wars shouldn’t have happened and a lot of needless suffering could have been eliminated if ‘so-called’ leaders stuck to being morally legitimate. There have been times when a patrol has been compromised by innocents and even though it’s put the patrol in danger, they’ve stuck to their own moral code. You know the risks involved with the work, but you also know how you will act because you’ve got to live with yourself afterwards. A companies values should be meaningful, not just a nice thing to stick on the walls. It’s what you stand for and gives everybody a code of conduct should the poo-poo hit the fan.

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.