Conventional wisdom says that military units are most likely to succeed in the field when they follow strict command-and-control procedures — when they operate within a rigid, top-down hierarchical organization: Officers at the top of the military pyramid issue orders, and the grunts on the ground swiftly and unquestioningly obey and execute those orders.
That’s the conventional wisdom. But according to General Peter Schoomaker, 53, commander in chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command, that’s also an outmoded, inaccurate, and dangerous model for leadership — and for followership. The armies that will win in the future — and, by extension, those organizations that will wage successful campaigns of any kind, whether they’re commercial, military, or otherwise — will be those that marshal “creative solutions in ambiguous circumstances,” says Schoomaker. “Everybody’s got to know how to be a leader.”
More than almost any leader of almost any organization, Schoomaker understands the challenges of change and the demands of adaptability. The end of the Cold War signaled the beginning of a new era for the Special Operations Forces (SOF) — and the need for a fundamental reevaluation of SOF’s mission, identity, and practices. Previously, SOF’s component parts — the Army Special Forces (including the Delta Force, the Green Berets, and the Army Rangers), the Navy seals, and the Air Force Special Operations squadrons — had been charged with carrying out the U.S. military’s most complex and clandestine missions. Members of these elite units fashioned themselves as fierce warriors and daring espionage agents, and the gutsiest SOF combatants became stars and heroes.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union came the need for SOF to reevaluate its role and to reinvent itself. “We know that we’re going to have fewer ‘wars’ but a lot more conflicts,” Schoomaker says. “There’s a real blurring between the definitions of ‘war’ and ‘peace,’ ‘domestic’ and ‘nondomestic,’ ‘economic’ and ‘military.’ All of this means that we need to be able to thrive in uncertainty. Our role is to support U.S. foreign policy. Increasingly, that means trying to keep large conflicts from breaking out — while also maintaining the ability to transition quickly to combat operations and, if necessary, to spearhead a decisive victory.”
Take, for example, an assignment that SOF received in 1991: Several dozen highly trained soldiers were dropped into Kurdish refugee camps along the Iraqi-Turkish border. The refugees had fled their homes after a failed rebellion against Saddam Hussein, and hundreds of thousands of them were crowded into hastily constructed camps. They were freezing in the cold, and many were starving to death. On the morning of the SOF team’s arrival at one camp, a riot broke out around a food convoy, and seven people were killed.
When members of the team arrived on the scene, they knew little about conditions in the camps. Nor did they know what kind of reception they would get from the refugees. So the commander of the unit turned to Captain Steve Damon, then 32, and said, “Go in there and get me an assessment.” Damon quickly assembled a 12-person team, grabbed a camcorder and a radio, and headed into the camp. “This was my first experience with a refugee camp,” Damon recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew that we had to do something.”
When Damon and his team got to the camp, they were immediately surrounded by angry Kurdish fighters. Amid a crowd so densely packed that Damon remembers it as “a carpet of people,” the team members had to keep their cool, to figure out how to defuse a tense situation, and to develop a constructive remedy for the refugees’ problems. While allowing people in the mob to vent their anger, Damon turned them away from complaining about the Americans and got them to list specific problems and to suggest particular solutions. Within a day, the SOF team had enlisted the Kurdish fighters to help distribute food. Within a few days, the team had set up a pipeline to carry drinkable water and had helped relief workers move medical clinics into the camp. For three months, until the refugees were able to return home, the SOF team (which grew to include 70 people) ran a makeshift city of 150,000; in the process, it saved thousands of lives.
That’s just one example of the new kind of service that SOF has been called upon to perform. A quick inventory of the ways in which the organization has recently been deployed further illustrates how dramatically the SOF mission has changed: In fiscal year 1998, SOF teams were sent into 152 countries and foreign territories. Activities ranged from responding to the crisis in Bosnia to aiding counterdrug efforts in Colombia, from clearing land mines in Namibia to participating in joint training exercises in Uzbekistan. On any given day, an SOF member might be stationed anywhere on the globe — and might be involved in anything from defusing ethnic tensions, to delivering humanitarian aid, to rescuing U.S. civilians trapped in an uprising overseas.
Because of the breadth and importance of those assignments, and because SOF teams usually consist of no more than a handful of people, SOF leaders face a daunting challenge in selecting, training, and developing their units: How do you create teams of people who can deliver results anytime, anywhere? How do you create an organization of 46,000 members, all of whom are as adept at saving civilian lives as they are (when necessary) at taking enemy lives? The principles and practices of General Schoomaker, and of several other current and former SOF leaders, provide a sophisticated arsenal of testing and teaching methods. Together, those methods have resulted in a new version of an old military organization — and a new breed of highly trained, highly skilled military leaders who operate at all levels of the organization.
Focus Your Mission, Define Your Identity
If SOF members are no longer fierce warriors and daring espionage agents, then what are they? “SOF has always been mission-focused,” says Schoomaker. “But now that mission has changed. We’ve had to change along with it and to develop new types of capabilities to fulfill it.”
“We had to communicate to our own force, and to the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and Congress, both how we saw the world changing and how we saw ourselves fitting in,” adds General Wayne Downing, 59, who served as SOF commander from 1993 to 1996 and who is now retired. “We had our unique military strengths, and we combined them with language capabilities, cultural capabilities, negotiation skills, problem-solving skills, and a creative ability to deal with very delicate situations.”
Today, SOF members view themselves as “warrior diplomats” and “quiet professionals” — terms that describe how SOF carries out its new mission. “Back in the time of World War I and World War II, we had simpler, more concrete experiences,” Schoomaker says. “When a war was over, you’d come home, have a parade, and then get back into a state of readiness. In our world, the so-called battlefields may not be battlefields at all. They may involve a situation like the one we had in Somalia, or a mission to set up a demining-training program, for example. In the past, the terms of our assignments were set by [Karl von] Clausewitz, whose views of battlefield warfare were very traditional. Today, we’re operating more in the tradition of Sun Tzu, whose approach was more indirect. Sun Tzu said, ‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.’ That view of military engagement opens up many more possibilities. In the Special Operations Forces, we’re always looking for the center of gravity of any issue. There may be 10 options available to you that don’t bring out your enemy’s strengths. We need to see what those options are and to move quickly and efficiently to implement the best one.”
Pick the Right People, Build the Right Team
In 1980, Schoomaker was one of the youngest officers to take part in Desert One, the failed attempt to rescue the Americans held hostage in Iran. Today, Schoomaker keeps a photo on his desk of one of the downed helicopters from that mission — a reminder to himself of a core principle: Never confuse enthusiasm with capability.
“This isn’t about pretty recruiting posters and fancy stripes down your pants,” he says. “This is about being able to do what we say we can do. If you’re General Electric and you say that you’re going to create a lightbulb that will burn for 100 years, then your lightbulb had better burn for 100 years. If you’re the Special Operations Forces and you say that you have people who can carry out complex missions that no one else can carry out, then you had better have those people.”
Delivering on that promise requires a relentless focus on picking the right people — and on instilling in them the right understanding. “You’ve got to select people with the highest likelihood of success,” he says. “Then you’ve got to train, educate, and assess them constantly. You’ve got to keep upgrading the quality. We have a set of four ‘SOF truths’: Humans are more important than hardware. Quality is better than quantity. SOF cannot be mass produced. SOF cannot be created after a crisis occurs. These truths guide how we think about building our force. They’re simple, and we repeat them over and over, and we make it every commander’s responsibility to make sure that his people understand them.”
According to Downing, who helped initiate the transformation of SOF, changing the organization’s mission and identity began with changing the way its commanders were assessed. Traditionally, commanders were judged on their military efficiency. In the new SOF, they are also judged on how well they deal with U.S. ambassadors in the field, with officers of other countries’ armies, with local civilians, and with guerrilla fighters. “We put people into various situations, and we saw how they did,” Downing says. “Just because you were great at the old mission didn’t mean that your performance in the new mission would be judged acceptable. When we found out that someone didn’t fit the new mission, we eliminated that person from our force. Our people are smart: They figured out why it was important to behave differently. And we were clear about what the consequences would be if they failed to live up to the new standards.”
To Be a Leader, Demonstrate Leadership
Downing oversaw the realignment of SOF’s senior ranks during his tenure as head of the organization. Now Schoomaker spends his time perfecting SOF’s selection methods and upgrading its training capabilities. “Assessment and selection are important because we’re a relatively small force, and the investment that we make in our people is massive,” he says. “By the time a Green Beret is qualified to join a team at the apprentice level, he’ll have had two years of training. That’s why we do our best to take our attrition up front.”
SOF’s selection process is as rigorous as its approach to conducting missions. “Leadership is all about dealing with change,” says Schoomaker. “That might mean changing the way an entire organization works. Or it might mean getting somebody out of a foxhole and getting that person to face machine-gun fire. Leadership means getting people to do something that they otherwise wouldn’t do — and getting them to do it willingly. How you do that varies with every situation. So we don’t have a cookie-cutter profile of what we’re looking for. Instead, we try to see whether people display the behavioral, psychological, and intellectual attributes that we’ve found to be successful.
“To make that assessment, we put people through a series of experiences in which they have to demonstrate whether they are capable of providing leadership, whether they can solve complex problems — both alone and in group situations — and how they handle moral dilemmas. We put them in situations that mirror what they’ll face in real missions, and we put them in group exercises to see how they handle tough assignments. For example, we’ll ask a group of men to move a jeep eight miles in a short period of time — and the jeep will have only three wheels! We give them some boards and rope, but no instructions on how to use those things. The whole time, a team of experienced people is watching to see how the men think, how they interact, and whether they take initiative.
“To see how a candidate handles dilemmas, we’ll put him in a situation that suddenly calls for him to deal with noncombatants: The life of one of his team members hangs in the balance with the lives of two noncombatants. There’s no right answer, but we find out what people’s gut reactions are — how they think, what they factor into their decisions. Do they understand that murder is murder in all circumstances? For some people, this isn’t a dilemma at all. It’s a black-and-white matter, and out of a sense of ‘loyalty,’ they’ll kill the two noncombatants just like that. Those aren’t the kind of people we want in our force.
“Now, all of this situational evaluation is done under conditions of immense physical and emotional stress. Candidates are often deprived of food and sleep, and all the while, they’re being watched and evaluated by experienced SOF members and by professional psychologists. At the end of this process, a board of successful SOF members, led by a senior leader, decides who’s in and who’s not. The ultimate question that board members ask is ‘Do I want to serve and fight with this person at my side?’ We do all of this before the real training even begins. All of this is just to see which people we want to invest our training resources in.”
Teach People How to Think, not What to Think
We need people who can operate in an increasingly complicated, subtle, and sophisticated world,” Schoomaker says. “You can’t pull out a checklist that tells you, ‘If this happens, you do that, and if that happens, you do this.’ In our business, you quickly get beyond things that can be solved through linear processes, and you encounter situations in which you have to rely on internalized skills. For that reason, we focus on teaching our people not just what to think but also how to think.”
To create leaders with problem-solving skills, SOF constantly invests in its people’s development. Each soldier may have a different set of experiences, but the goals and the methods of the training are the same in every case. The training process starts with existing SOF leaders explaining to new SOF members the importance of developing critical-thinking skills — and why staying in the force depends on learning to apply those skills.
“We don’t issue that many orders from the top,” says Schoomaker. “We are very clear that the overall objective of the force is to support U.S. interests around the world, and we are absolutely clear about our ethical standards. When we have a mission, we talk to our people about the mission’s specific strategic objectives, and then it’s up to them to make sure that their tactical moves support those objectives, as well as those ethical standards.
“For example, when we went into Haiti, in 1994, the strategic objective was to secure the country quickly — but we had to do so in the midst of civilians and with TV cameras everywhere. A captain might be charged with neutralizing a guardhouse that backs up against a slum. He’d know he couldn’t blast his way in there, because every shack in that slum has a gallon of gasoline in it for cooking — and if you go in shooting, you’re likely to set off an explosion. But the captain and his team would have to figure out on their own how to neutralize that guardhouse. Then they would brief the chain of command about their operational plans. That approach to decision making is much faster than the traditional military model. It also creates an expectation among all the people in our force: We give them an outline of the problem — and it’s their job to find a solution that fits that outline.”
Core Values Hold the Ranks Together
In a world characterized by fast-moving, fast-changing situations, a shared set of internalized knowledge and values represents the unchanging core of an organization. For that reason, every member of SOF must work to understand and appreciate SOF’s core values. “We don’t want to teach people two ways to use a hammer and two ways to use a screwdriver,” says Schoomaker. “We want to teach them the potential of every item in the SOF toolbox. We give them the ability to use the stuff in that toolbox not only to build a house but also to make fine furniture. The whole idea is to get beyond the mechanics — and to get into the art. So we give people principles that they can apply to any situation.”
To convey the organization’s core values, Schoomaker and other SOF leaders constantly share their own guiding principles — and challenge subordinates to develop new guiding principles. Schoomaker offers one set of SOF “rules”:
Take the initiative. Don’t wait for answers from the top — because they’re rarely available.
Things are rarely fair. Don’t count on the exception!
Truth changes: The first report is always suspect.
Expect the unexpected: Anticipate and prepare.
Plan and prepare as if there were no rules.
“I tell people other things that I’ve learned,” says Schoomaker. “When you come up with a tactical solution, expect your enemy to make a countertactical move. Always preserve your freedom of action. Always create options. Never make a decision that boxes you in. You’ve got to go out on a hill and say, ‘What’s possible out here? What’s most likely to occur?’ Look at every situation as if you were in the future and you were looking back on it.
“I also tell our people to think about what it’s like to be in a helicopter. Have you ever flown in a helicopter, very close to the ground? The ground, the trees, the whole scene — everything just whizzes by. But if you gain altitude, the world slows down all of a sudden, and you can see things more clearly.”
Action Learning Is the Way to Learning
For our simulated missions, we replicate the uncertainty, the dangers, the unexpected events that happen out in the field,” says Schoomaker. “A typical exercise puts a team in stressful combat situations for 12 days. We give team members a planning scenario that includes an explanation of the geopolitical context, so that they can understand the whole problem. For example: Two countries are at war, and we’re going in to support one of them because that country is also under threat from an insurgency. The team’s mission is to go in, to make contact with the necessary people, and to develop an indigenous force that can counter the insurgency. At that point, a series of events will occur. Team members may set up a mission to conduct a joint raid with the locals, and in the process of the raid, the locals may take significant casualties. In fact, they may lose the battle.
“Then, when it’s over, we stop and say, ‘Now let’s go back to the beginning.’ We go through the mission phase by phase, using a formal process called an After Action Review. From privates to generals, everyone who had anything to do with the operation sits down and reviews what happened. The process is facilitated by ‘observer-controllers,’ who ask, ‘What were the conditions that caused you to do this? Why did you make that decision? Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?’
“You have to set up an environment in which it’s okay to make mistakes. Of course, not everything that goes wrong is a ‘mistake.’ Personal negligence, misbehavior, and disobedience, for example, are not mistakes. But if you were trying to follow your commander’s intent, and you were using your best judgment, and the situation just didn’t come out right, that’s okay. You have to learn from that mistake — and your commander has to learn as well. You look at every detail that could account for the mistake. You try to figure out what went wrong — and what it will take to fix the problem.”
Make Everyone a Teacher
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Schoomaker and SOF is the ongoing need to redefine leadership and heroism in the context of the organization’s new mission. In the old SOF, heroes were rough-and-ready individuals. They were worshiped for their ability to face danger, to take risks, and, perhaps most important, to act without regard to loss of life. In the new SOF, heroes are teachers. SOF evaluates its leaders on how well they train, inspire, and develop their troops — not just one level down, but two levels down. During war games, observer-controllers regularly disrupt the chain of command to see how junior members perform under pressure. If soldiers do poorly, the responsibility for improvement and development falls on their commander.
“If you’re a rifle-company commander or an SOF-team commander, you may well be a casualty of the first bullet,” Schoomaker says. “If that happens, and if the unit that you trained has the discipline and the character to accomplish its objective without you, then that’s a reflection of your commitment and your contribution. Ultimately, the most effective measure of a leader is the performance of his unit in his absence.”
Eli Cohen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the research director at the Michigan Business School. Noel Tichy (email@example.com) is a professor at Michigan Business School. They are co-authors of a book, “The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level” (HarperBusiness, 1997). You can learn more about the U.S. Special Operations Command on the Web (www.socom.mil).