What the SAS taught me about teamwork

The unique experience of being in the SAS, resulted in many lessons, in particular, this is what the SAS taught me about teamwork.  Here are some of the highlights.

1. Hearts and minds lead the way

A really effective anti-terrorist operation occurred in the 1950s. General Calvert of the SAS was asked to intervene in the Malayan Conflict. Normal military tactics hadn’t worked in the Jungle, so Calvert went out to win the hearts and minds of the local aboriginals. Calvert’s men helped the locals with medical supplies and security. This meant the ‘enemy’ were left isolated and without assistance.

Of course warfare today is primarily dropping bombs on people and hope you get the odd target. Then we wonder why the locals don’t cooperate.

No matter what you’re doing, whatever business you think you’re in, you’re in the people business first. If you contribute to stakeholder’s happiness, well-being and personal development, then you’ll win their hearts and minds.

Win the hearts and minds of your potential clients and they’ll buy into you as opposed to just buying off you.

2. Communication is Key

Two SAS soldiers came across a village in the jungle that had been decimated during a typhoon. All communications were down and there was no way for the villagers to contact the outside world for help. The soldiers got out their radio and slung antennae high into the trees. Using Morse code they sent a message back to their base in the UK who promptly sent word back to the relevant people in the disaster zone.

The SAS consider communication one of, if not the most important skill. It’s the same in business. Communication is essential and as the NLP presupposition goes,

‘The value of your communication is the response you get back’.

What the SAS taught me about teamwork was about mission and purpose. Clarity of Mission: When working with clients we’ll often go into their offices and interview team members. We’ll ask several questions around the subjects of purpose, mission and strategy. We’ve generally found, as Harvard Business Review did recently, that around 70% of employees are not aware of the strategy. We call it mushroom management in the military.

“Kept in the dark and fed on ‘manure’”

3. Goals and systems

For a team to reach its potential, they must have clarity on shared goals and purpose. With clarity comes a back-stop as a place of reference. Where individual members within a group can ask themselves “Is this action going to move the organisation closer to the target or further away?”

All systems have an optimum state: With Frederick Laloux’s book, ‘Reinventing Organisations’ hailing self-managing teams as the next big thing and Tony Hsieh from Zappos lauding ‘Holocracy’s’ benefits as a new system of management. It might come as a bit of a surprise to them that the SAS has always operated along similar lines.

Natural systems usually have an optimum size. I noticed when standing on the skids of helicopters skimming the top of the jungle canopy that trees never grows past a certain point. People can operate at the upper end of their performance in a particular size of the group. Experience will show you the optimum size of group you should work with.

Hierarchy has a habit of being shunned in Special Forces and for good reason, ego gets involved. Working in small four or five-member, self-managing teams has usually worked best. They may bring a group of teams together on a larger project, but post the mission, they break up back into their original smaller units once again.

4. Familiarity counts

Deep understanding comes from being close and supportive to other team members. This leads to higher performance. Strong relationships form in the Special Forces and it’s a bond that will often last a lifetime. All human systems go through a process of being co-dependent, counter-dependent and then inter-dependent. At that inter-dependent level is where the peak performance is. Having close friends at work according to Gallup adds to life satisfaction to the point that it’s like having a $100,000 raise. Losing a friend at work feels like experiencing a $90k cut in salary. Having close friends at work matters on several levels. It’s not just a support network, deep familiarity is also a trigger of flow states.

5. Sticky and continuous learning

I was learning long-range patrolling skills in the jungles and our instructor was a very seasoned SAS soldier. As the course went on, I soon realised that his considerable reputation was justified. What he didn’t know about fighting covertly in the jungle really didn’t matter. This guy was a ‘Jedi’.

The course culminated with us all going on a long-range patrol of several days. Being tactical in the jungle means moving slowly and making sure you didn’t leave any ‘sign’ for a potential enemy to track you with. We’d been out for several days and we’d thrown in occasional snap ambushes to try to catch out anybody attempting to track us. We didn’t see anybody and we were sure nobody could have followed us. As we finished the seventh day of the patrol, we came upon a place we felt we could lay-up.

We proceeded to recce the area. I was a lead scout and was slowly circling the potential encampment. I came upon the Instructor when I was around six feet away from him. He was stood still resting his hand on his walking stick smiling. This ghost had somehow managed to track us, pass around us without us detecting him; then he lay an ambush for us.

Whilst we were having a beer after the course, I plugged the instructor for as much information and knowledge as I could. He was leaving the jungles shortly as his time had come to an end on that particular posting. I asked him what he was off to do next. His answer? “More training” He explained that you should never become complacent, life is ever-evolving. If change is the only constant, then continual training that’s reinforced, that sticks, should be too.

6. Ownership

All Players must have ‘skin in the game’: As Stephen Kotler, Co-Founder of the Flow Genome Project concludes, risk: “…causes the mind to stretch its muscles. It creates mandatory conditions for innovation. It trains the brain to think in unusual ways. Finally, it trains the brain to be more creative.”

If you want to tap into the collective intelligence and creativity of your team, they must have a sense of ownership. They must realise that they will also feel the pain of defeat as well as the pleasure of success. Perhaps the banking crisis wouldn’t have occurred if risk was involved.

There is something about facing 24 hours of interrogation that just seems to make the mind work in a different, more effective way. I had one client who would regularly introduce a fake disaster, such as looming bankruptcy, into the mix just to get the team to “up” their game. It worked until they realised what he was doing.

There is a lot to be learnt from the Special Forces mentality, the SAS taught me about teamwork and modus operandi.  Creating a culture which attracts the top talent, training teams to be self-managing, treating people as adults, it all takes a shift in attitude and perspective. It’s worth doing though because it unleashes the passion and potential of your team which, will make your company more valuable and sustainable. So

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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.