The Special Forces of Leadership: Lessons Learned

Military high performance specialist Harry Moffitt argues that we need to disenthrall ourselves with dated ideas of leadership if we are to continue to create effective leaders.

“You really wanna know what the secret is to becoming an Operator Harry? The secret is … it sucks!”


By Harry Moffitt

Special Operations Forces (SOF) are home to some of the highest performing teams on the planet. Their extreme physical, cognitive and social selection and training standards hold almost mythical status. Therefore, many in business and sport aspire to learn from and emulate SOF practices, particularly in the domain of leadership. However, the knowledge, skills and abilities forged by SOF ‘operators’ over their careers are difficult to explain, as most learning about leadership takes place vicariously. This raises a significant challenge for SOF, and those who seek to emulate them: how do we bridge the ‘knowing-doing gap’[i], and its military antipode the ‘doing-knowing gap’[ii]? How do we best facilitate tacit knowledge transfer[iii]?

The answer is a more sophisticated approach to empowering those who do the selection and training; the ‘Grey-Beards’[1].

Thoughts from a Grey-Beard

SOF Grey-Beards are the keepers of oral and cultural traditions, those who have been “down range” or “smelled the smoke” and been lucky enough to return, to reflect upon and share their experiences[iv]. They are deeply loyal to and invested in the community, passionate in protecting and passing on the mythology[v].  However, we underinvest in their development, and anchor them in dated stereotypes. Many SOF units are attempting to address this issue, for example via the collaboration with the Wharton School Mission Critical Teams Initiative[vi]. But there is resistance.


“Just because you are good at a thing, doesn’t mean you are good at teaching a thing”

Cline, 2017.


Traditional military institutions and wisdoms about human and team performance are being contested. In the new era dated customs and traditions, rigid linear hierarchies, and old theories and models of leadership struggle to hold relevance. The science matters; neuro-psychology, epigenetics, environmental ‘climate control’ (as opposed to command and control), team cognition, soft-skill development and diversity challenge the “the way we have always done it”, and point to a new way to build ‘antifragile’[i] people and teams. What follows are some reflections and lessons learned by an old SOF Operator, a Grey-Beard, who has made many mistakes across hundreds of missions in a 25-year career.



**Adapted from model of Design Thinking.


I offer that ‘Leadership’ is broken; the modern concept has outlived its usefulness. Evident in the billion-dollar leadership industry, the contemporary miscellany of theories and models are distractions and abstractions of the true nature of leadership. We remain seduced by sexy and flawed notions of ‘being’ a leader, or, ‘doing’ leadership. Various academic definitions attribute laundry lists of traits (e.g. motivating, influencing, visionary and communicators) to ‘good’ leadership, somehow having us believe we have more control over its manifestation than we really do.

Comparable to debates around nature-nurture[i], the dichotomy of leaders being ‘made’ or ‘born’ is unhelpful. It is neither a station nor a position. Nor does one become ‘a’ or ‘the’ leader via ascendance. It seems self-evident to me that in any of the classical conceptualisations of leadership, those ‘leaders’ are randomly selected from life’s fortunes by luck and chance, elements all but missing from the various lists of leadership characteristics. Notwithstanding the significant task of challenging the leadership industry, I am much more comfortable with the term steward over leader.


“Leadership is like driving; everyone thinks they are the best on the road … until they hit the ice.”



I contend that leadership arrives, without warning, and can recede as quickly. It is an energy that ebbs and flows to, from and between individuals and environments. It is unpredictable and quantum in nature and continually wrestles the entropic tensions between environments and our social cognitions[ii], something apparent in our struggle to define it. Leadership demands attention. It is an imperative, an obligation, a responsibility. It can arrive simultaneously across numerous locations and presents as multiple realities and perceptions in the consciousness of various actors, forcing them to negotiate so called VUCA-P[iii] states in order to facilitate understanding and coordination[iv]. Perhaps the Cynefin[v] framework is useful in explaining this. Thus, many practitioners agree that one is never ready or that it is messy, uncomfortable and lonely. The art of leadership is in learning to dance and not wrestle with it.

This perspective challenges the notion that it is all about character traits and abilities; about us. I agree with Charles Pellerin[vi] and Malcolm Gladwell[vii] that ‘context trumps character’. Epigenetics appear to provide evidence for this position, challenging our understanding about human and team performance[viii]. And concepts such as exaptation[ix] and complex adaptive systems[x], for example, prompt deeper consideration about our adaptation to modernity, now arguably changing faster than we can keep pace[xi]. Such concepts are not new to SOF teams, who are raised to meet ‘rate of change’ problem sets[xii]; the ultimate problem solvers or sense-makers, if you will?

Certainly, from a SOF perspective, leadership is complex, and we must see it as such, and resist reductionist biases. Circumstances and environments can change from stable to chaotic in seconds (e.g. a gun fight) or across decades (e.g. gender equity), and this should shape our learning approaches. We must be wary of using constrained leadership theories, too many based on hindsight, memory reconsolidation and backwards rationalisation. The horrific realities of WWI&II, for example, thrust leadership upon many young men unexpectedly and unfortunately, far from the safe environs of romantically constructed ‘great man’ leaders in command; a tragic example indeed.


“To be born a good person is an accident. To die a good person is an achievement”



Of course, we can predict the arrival of leadership only inasmuch as it is inevitable. Therefore, we must accept that the arrival of leadership is an entirely existential phenomenon. In accepting the premise of this perspective our entire focus should be on what we can control, the physical, psychological and social factors of human performance – its inputs. We must disenthrall ourselves with dated concepts, such as those of leadership, and move to a more interactional and collective appreciation of and preparation for when leadership arrives. We need to move to a model where the individual is not at the centre of ‘being’ or ‘doing’ leadership; rather, as part of a complex system of systems in which teams trump ‘leaders’.



**Adapted from Biopsychosocial Model of Disease & Health.


Teams trump “Leaders”

Historically, elitist ideals have meant we have relied on ‘leaders’ (almost always men) to make difficult decisions against which we later judge them. But increasingly we know that well-designed teams make better decisions than individuals[i]. The key is to be disciplined enough to persist with the hard work it takes to build professional and personal capability and capacity, and the team environment can be a powerful force multiplier in achieving this.

In SOF we do this, first, by prioritising what we put IN our operators rather than what we put ON them – the cardinal rule of SOF is that humans are more important than hardware. Secondly, we seek to build complexity to meet complexity – it is too late to build a team post emergency. That is, SOF individuals and teams maintain an array of capabilities and states, in preparation for any challenge; i.e. the arrival of leadership (e.g. Black Swans[ii]). Contingency Theory is helpful to understand this, and this is an important point as SOF seek to maintain their ability to deliver disproportionate effects.

To build sophisticated learning environments in which our Grey-Beards can grow high performing teams, our emphasis and language is evolving as we challenge those rigid hierarchies and dated traditions. To facilitate the tacit knowledge transfer, the elders will require a deeper understanding of their own theories and the science to develop a balanced and deliberate mix of exposure, experience and education. Perhaps conversely, the MBA school house, for example, might seek a deeper application of the experiential to supplement their theory?

Bridge the knowing-doing-knowing gap

Via mostly self-directed selection and training methods SOF teams develop a level of biopsychosocial consciousness, a collective psychology or team cognition[iii]. This has availed great insight into individual and team capacity and capability, or resilience. For example, we understand both the deleterious (e.g. Cognitive Load Theory) and beneficial (e.g. Cocktail Party Effect) aspects of our biopsychosocial performance, and their impacts on our ability to perform numerous tasks simultaneously. To truly leverage such knowledge, we must embrace a new era of operator-scientist partnerships.

A SEAL friend recently suggested that the scientists need “to see and feel some of the theories they posit. And vice versa, ask the operators … would their (the Grey-Beards) “empirical” models hold up under academic scrutiny.” “Smashing” scientists and Grey-Beards together delivers the opportunity to develop the knowledge and language required to facilitate the model of tacit knowledge transfer in learning we require, and this will have benefits more broadly.

The science matters. Our growing knowledge in neuroscience, for example, assists us to understand normative social influences[iv] in team interactions, and the role of mirror neurons[v] in developing self and situational awareness. In turn this will avail further insights into the impact of unconscious biases in our decision-making, problem solving and performance.

Growing people and teams


“(We) made it clear … they didn’t work for us, we worked for them.”

Fraenkel & Rivkin, c.1988[vi]


While the science of humans is complex, it is my observation that the process of growing teams does not need to be. The best so called ‘leaders’ I have observed have what I term a “Constant Gardener” effect. Rather than seeking to influence, motivate and direct people and teams, they nurture them like a garden, with rich soil and safe, favourable environments, preparing them for the arrival of leadership. Everyone has room to flourish.

I sense there are good examples of such gardeners in sports (e.g. Damien Hardwick, Richmond Football Club), and in business (e.g. Jack Rivkin, Lehman Brothers, prior to its ills). Poor exemplars tend to insist on “pulling up the flowers to see if their roots are healthy[vii]”.

For me, this analogy also explains team longevity. A SOF team has dozens of commanders and personnel move through it over time, i.e. the plants cycle through different stages and seasons of growth. Perhaps it builds on Dweck’s[viii] ‘growth mindset’ approach. As stewards of the team it is our responsibility to maintain the soil and environment – good stewards ‘know and do’ this.

Leaders or stewards?

It is my observation that these stewards, these constant gardeners, appear to follow similar simple but powerful principles in optimising the environment and potential for people and teams to grow – they ask good questions of everyone and everything, then they shut-up and listen (QSL)[ix].

“You have one mouth, two ears, and two eyes – use them in that proportion.”

Epictetus, c.100

QUESTION: secure information to build self and situational awareness and to assess resource opportunities.

SHUT-UP: enable others, make time to think and critically reflect.

LISTEN: foster trust, empathy, and neuro-coupling.


**Model proposed by Author.


Applied in seconds (e.g. a gun fight) or across decades (e.g. gender equity) this simple approach facilitates information transfer, builds trust, and therefore increases self and situational awareness. It combats social diseases such as ‘talking too much’ or ‘waiting to talk’[1], and positions the team to facilitate the free flow of leadership when it arrives, to dance with it. Of course, occasionally and ultimately, decisions need to be made, but they are based on a shared understanding.

Leadership arrives as change, and change is now a constant state. Developing new practitioner-scientist, approaches will assist the Grey-Beards to grow high performance and antifragile teams for the new era, something it appears we are likely to need more of. As a young operator I believed in the mission-team-self mantra; now, after decades of exposure, experience and education I see it the other way around. Prepare yourself and the team well for the inevitable arrival of leadership, and the mission will largely take care of itself.

Key lessons learned

  1. Hard Work – the discipline to build professional and personal capability and capacity.
  2. Question, Shut-up & Listen – build self- and situational-awareness, trust and empathy.
  3. Open your mind – make time for diverse exposure, experience and education.
  4. Sense of humour – don’t take yourself and things too seriously.
  5. Grow a Garden – adopt a Constant Gardener approach.


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Campbell, Joseph, & Moyers, Bill. (2011). The power of myth: Random House LLC.


Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House.

Moore, D. S. (2003). The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of Nature Vs. Nurture, Henry Holt. ISBN 978-0805072808

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See Dave Snowden at http://cognitive-edge.com/

Pellerin, C. J. (2009). How NASA builds teams: Mission critical soft skills for scientists, engineers, and project teams (p 14-15). John Wiley & Sons.

Gladwell, Malcolm (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (p 163). Little Brown.

2012 discussion between Richard Dawkins and Steve Rose https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QceGqKZMqIM

e.g., the theorised adaptation of the function of feathers from thermoregulatory purposes to flight, during the Mesozoic Era; 2012 discussion between Richard Dawkins and Steve Rose https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QceGqKZMqIM

Dave Snowden at http://cognitive-edge.com/

Center for the Study of Intelligence (U.S.). (2010). Center for the Study of Intelligence bulletin. 2010, from http://blogs.hbr.org/bigshift/2009/01/the-new-reality-constant-disru.html; Cline, P. in McChrystal, S. (2015). Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. Penguin.

Cline, P. (2015). Selecting for the Operator: Examining the Selection Criteria of Mission Critical Teams. Paper submitted as part of Dissertation: Mission critical teams: Towards the creation of a university assisted, mission critical team instructor cadre development program.

Hackman, J. R. (2002). Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.

Taleb, N. N. (2010). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Fernandez, R., Shah, S., Rosenman, E. D., Kozlowski, S. W., Parker, S. H., & Grand, J. A. (2017). Developing Team Cognition: A Role for Simulation. Simulation in Healthcare, 12(2), 96-103.

Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative social influence is underdetected. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 34(7), 913-923.

Oberman, L.; Ramachandran, V.S. (2009). “Reflections on the Mirror Neuron System: Their Evolutionary Functions Beyond Motor Representation”. In Pineda, J.A. Mirror Neuron Systems: The Role of Mirroring Processes in Social Cognition. Humana Press. pp. 39–62. ISBN 978-1-934115-34-3.

Nanda, A., Groysberg, B., & Prusiner, L (Rev. 2008). Lehman Brothers (A): Rise of the equity research department. Harvard Business School.

Townsend, R. (2007). Up the Organization. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C S 2006, Mindset: The new psychology of success, Random House, New York.

Coincidentally, QSL is a Morse code for “Do you acknowledge receipt?” and “I acknowledge receipt.”

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