Leadership and High Functioning Tactical Units—5 Things I’ve Learned About SWAT and Special Operations Teams

Whether you’re leading leaders in a life-and-death crisis situation or supervising or participating in a business venture, here are five important principles in developing and leading teams to help you get the best results.

For over half of my life, I’ve been able to work alongside or rub shoulders with the crème de la crème of US military and law enforcement warriors. Some of the most amazing and inspiring human beings fill the ranks of law enforcement Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and military Special Operations Forces (SOF). From hostage rescue operations to fireside chats, I’ve witnessed the intensity and humanity of these incredible and elite performers. High-speed operators gravitate towards high-speed units where they can work alongside like-minded individuals. There, only as a team, can they accomplish difficult tasks and missions that give them both drive and purpose. Whether you’re in these organizations or whether you lead a business, here are five axioms, in no particular order of importance, that will help you and your organization excel in performance like SWAT and SOF.

1. Make People the Priority

You must make people your number-one priority. The SOF Truths for the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) state, in part, “Humans are more important than hardware. People—not equipment—make the critical difference.”[1] Taking care of people means value them as the most prized asset to your organization. 

Get to know your people on both a personal and professional level. Help them. Teach them. Train them. Invest in them. Compensate them well. Give them the tools and education they need to succeed. Give them opportunities to excel in their personal and professional goals, even if that means outside of working with you or your organization. As you create an atmosphere where people are the priority and as you develop, encourage, and help them with their needs, interests, and goals, turnover will diminish. In fact, people will soon be begging to work with your organization. 

2. Give Individuals Responsibility

Freedom and liberty bring joy. We cannot have liberty without responsibility. A brilliant man once observed we should have a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast to help balance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast.[2] Human beings yearn for liberty, and thus need the responsibility to maintain it. Although some people try to shirk responsibility, high performers thrive on it; they look for it. 

Organizations and leaders who give guidance, direction, and responsibility to subordinates will reap stability. Set out the mission, goals, and direction and then get out of the way. Let people use their skills and abilities to accomplish the task that they are interested in achieving. Motivation is the mother of dependability. Know what motivates your people and then set them off to run in that direction. Once you do that, you’ll be surprised at how much they can accomplish. The enthusiasm will ooze and spread throughout your organization. 

3. Encourage Trust

Combining the principles of putting people first and then giving them a responsibility will help with the next objective you must encourage for great results: trust. When you invest in people and give them the tools to help them succeed, they will become subject matter experts. Since they’re the experts, let them out of the cage. You should not bring someone into your inner circle and ask them for help without allowing them to help. Individuals, especially high performers, yearn to be a part of something great. They want their voices heard. They want to make a difference. So, let them make a difference. You do that by letting their voices be heard. 

Trust is an essential trait in high performing organizations. The planning and the ideas of an organization should not have to come from the top down. Leaders give mission statements. Leaders give direction. Planning should be done by the team. Besides, sometimes those at the top are out of touch anyway because they don’t see what the “boots on the ground” see. Therefore, like elite, fast-acting special ops units with operators who are experts at their jobs, you’re organization could benefit by “implement[ing] bottom-up planning.”[3]

4. Promote Adversarial Discussion

Once you’ve selected and developed individuals, when you bring them together, create an atmosphere where they can talk openly and give their input. Support a culture of looking at things from a different perspective. Set aside egos. Have the courage to admit when you’re wrong—or better yet, just don’t get offended. The mission is more important than egos. 

Adversarial processing and suggestions will help alleviate the damning aspects of group think. Everyone shouldn’t cater to the loudest person in the room nor to the person with the greatest rank or authority. Organizational leaders and supervisors surrounded by so-called “yes men” are doomed to lead the team down the wrong path or follow poor counsel, especially if all the advisors are afraid to speak up and tell the emperor he’s not wearing any clothes. Instead, create a climate that encourages differing opinions and viewpoints. 

5. Support Creativity

A few years before he died, my friend, a Delta Force operator who wrote under the pseudonym Dalton Fury, sent me a photo with him, actor Tom Hanks, and two other unit operators on an outdoor firearms range. As I recall, one of the men in the photo was Pete Blaber who wrote, The Mission, the Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander. In his book, Blaber described some serious unconventional brainstorming among unit operators, including the use of a gorilla suit during a tactical mission. 

Truly successful organizations encourage unconventional thinking and discussion to find solutions to difficult problems. Do not discount ideas, plans, or observations. As a facilitator running a brainstorming or forecasting session, it’s important not to lambast anyone’s suggestion, no matter how bizarre the ideas may seem. Encourage creativity. We often talk about out-of-the-box thinking, but only the truly creative minds and teams go forward with the best, most unconventional ideas that show great daring and success.

In sum, the five most important aspects about leading high-speed teams and performance at the highest level include these essential principles, namely: make people the priority, give them responsibility, encourage trust, promote adversarial discussion, and support creativity. Remember, people are more important than tools or equipment. When you invest in people and encourage the essence of genuine teamwork, people and teams evolve to accomplish incredibly amazing feats.

[1] United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). SOF Truths. https://www.socom.mil/about/sof-truths

[2] Viktor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2006.

[3] Dalton Fury. Kill Bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander’s Account of the Hunt for the World’s Most Wanted Man, St. Martin’s Press, 2008, 43.

Author’s Background

Jeffrey J. Denning is a former noncommissioned and commissioned military officer with service in Iraq. He has also worked for a US Government Customer. He is the author of seven books, including Warrior SOS—Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival, and Living with PTSD, where multiple SOF operators were interviewed, including some from 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D), a.k.a. Delta Force or “the unit.” He holds a master’s degree in military special operations and low-intensity conflict with an emphasis in terrorism from American Military University and a second master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Grand Canyon University. 

Jeffrey Denning

Jeffrey has written award-winning articles for the Washington Times, Guns.com, and other publications. He is the author of seven books, including Warrior SOS: Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival and Living with PTSD. He teaches courses on peer support, suicide prevention, and other mental wellness and resilience to public safety professionals. If you would like Jeff to speak at your event or training please contact him HERE.

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