The SAS has been described as a “bunch of misfits who happened to fit together”, and having served with them for more than 10 years, from the desert heat of Afghanistan to the mind-numbing cold of Mount Everest, I can honestly say that’s a fair description.
An “ethos of excellence” has been claimed by many organisations; it is included on almost every list of corporate values I’ve ever seen. Yet, the SAS has never found much use for posters bearing aspirational lists of values dotted around the office because every member of the regiment lives those values – that ethos – every day.
Finding the right people
Life in the SAS is a bit different to most jobs, so we use a process that’s also a bit different to find suitable people. It may seem a little harsh but time and experience has shown that it works.
There’s no interview – we don’t need one – because when the candidate’s been up all night walking alone from checkpoint to remote checkpoint in the hills, soaked to the skin and fatigued beyond description, he asks himself all the questions we need answers to, such as “why am I still here?” and “can I endure another day like today?”
We all love a challenge, but one that we believe to be within our current capability. Consistently working far below our abilities is likely to bore us and anything far beyond it is likely to overwhelm us.
The ideal situation is the ‘Goldilocks Challenge’ – not too hard, not too easy, but just right – which means that we’re operating at or slightly beyond the limits of our present capability. This is the growth zone where we are expected to make mistakes and even fail occasionally; indeed if we don’t fail, it’s a fair bet that we weren’t working in the zone in the first place.
It’s not about the money
I’m proud to have served my Queen and country but I can honestly say these were the last things on my mind as I sat in the cold Afghan desert air one night waiting for more than 400 Taliban to arrive at my remote outpost.
I was thinking about 12 colleagues and how the last thing I wanted to do was let them down. I wanted us all to survive the night and I resolved that I’d die trying if I had to.
Money can be a useful tool to produce certain behaviours in particular circumstances, and it’s an inescapable part of life until Coles starts taking hugs in exchange for our weekly groceries, but it’s not the motivator of excellence we once thought it was. In some cases, it may actually be harmful as people become preoccupied with it as a short-term form of motivation.
Giving and getting feedback
No plan will ever be perfect, but leaders can give it the best chance of success by using all the brains they can borrow rather than the ones they have.
In planning missions we used a technique called the ‘Chinese Parliament’ where the team leader would call for everyone’s opinion on important decisions that would affect the whole team.
Regardless of rank or seniority, every person was expected to voice their opinion and ideas without fear of censure. Sometimes this led to some really innovative ways to solve a problem, particularly when one suggestion led to another, which eventually led to a breakthrough.
The art of delegation
Human relationships are based on emotions that are anything but logical or predictable. It’s up to the leader to sense how much freedom of action, or latitude to operate, someone needs and wants in order to successfully achieve their objective.
But even an experienced worker may need frequent or close supervision on a task that they’re unfamiliar with and that is time-critical to the organisational goal, and yet they may choose to, perhaps incorrectly, perceive the leader lacks confidence in them.
Others may have regularly shied away from taking responsibility for tasks for fear of the consequences of a mistake and demanded close supervision when they’re sufficiently skilled to work unsupervised.
A challenge of leadership is to balance your people’s need for stimulation and challenge and the needs of the organisation to get the task completed successfully.