Secrets of "Special Ops" Leadership

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Aug 16, 2023

By AMA Staff

The Navy SEALs. The Green Berets. Delta Force. These are just a few examples of military units known as "special ops"—unique fighting forces trained to beat overwhelming odds on every mission. Using principles like speed, repetition, surprise and simplicity, these elite units accomplish extremely challenging tasks, often against incredible odds. They are the forces summoned when a miracle is called for.

Just as special ops are needed for critical tasks in battle, ultrahigh achievers are needed for special circumstances in business situations where time is important, when resources are low or insufficient or where crisis is imminent. But can commando techniques really work in the workplace?

William A. Cohen says, “Yes.” And he should know. Here are just some of his credits: West Point graduate, former air commando in Vietnam, Air Force major general (ret.) and Ph.D. from the Peter Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. Now, in his book Secrets of Special Ops Leadership: Dare the Impossible—Achieve the Extraordinary (AMACOM, 2005), Dr. Cohen draws on his extensive experience in battle and in business and reveals the essential core practices of special ops leadership.

Special Ops Practices for Extraordinary Business Success

1. Create the Best. To achieve the extraordinary, you need extraordinary people. Commandos, however, aren’t born but made. Creating them involves three stages: locate and recruit volunteers, screen and select the cream of candidates, train and motivate for excellence.

2. Dare the Impossible. Give your commandos demanding, high-impact jobs, and the results will blow you away. Give them anything less and not only will your resources be wasted, but your commandos will soon be off seeking challenges somewhere else.

3. Throw the Rule Book Away. Commandos thrive on innovation. As the chief innovator, you need to stay alert to opportunities and threats in your environment, encourage a shared vision with clear goals, develop a tolerance for the unusual and bizarre, and reward bold ideas that work.

4. Be Where the Action Is. A true leader leads from the front. Whether in battle or business, a special ops leader must share the risks, the hardships and the defeats as well as the victories.

5. Commit and Require Total Commitment. If you are totally committed to a project or purpose, your commandos will follow you, regardless of the sacrifices. To show uncommon commitment to your commandos, communicate face-to-face, make commitments public, and don’t stop when the going gets rough.

6. Demand Tough Discipline. If you want your organization to succeed, you have to help your commandos develop self-discipline. Require obedience to the rules at all times, with no exceptions. Set the example by obeying rules from above.

7. Build a Commando Team. Commandos don’t work as individuals. Building an outstanding commando team happens in four stages: getting organized, fighting it out for the right course of action, getting the team to pull together and keeping the team moving forward to get the job done, exceptionally well.

8. Inspire Others to Follow Your Vision. As a leader, you must first have a clear vision of where you want your organization to go and what you want it to be, and then make it compelling and meaningful to others. Promote your vision with a motto and other tools. Live your vision every day.

9. Accept Full Blame; Give Full Credit. You can delegate authority but not responsibility. Hold your commandos accountable for their failures but don’t leave them “holding the bag.” When your commandos persist and prevail, give them credit for the victory— completely, unselfishly and publicly.

10. Take Charge! To be the kind of leader that commandos will respect and follow, you must dominate the situation right from the outset, establish your objectives early in the game, communicate with your team, act boldly and decisively, lead by example and follow your instincts.

11. Reward Effectively. Commandos perform above the call of duty for reasons beyond money. Recognition for jobs exceptionally well done can come in many forms. To be effective, rewards should be timely, fair (and justifiable), tied to specific accomplishments and important to the people working to receive them.

12. Make the Most of What You Have. Leaders don’t always have the luxury of creating commandos from scratch. Yet, with the right approach, it is possible to transform virtually anyone—even so-called misfits— into a valuable commando team player. Focus on developing cohesion through pride in team membership, teamwork and high morale, at both the individual and group levels.

13. Never Give Up. Perseverance makes all the difference. You can get high levels of performance if you imbue your commandos with mental toughness, warn them away from rigidity in their thinking, and lead them by demonstrating your own determination to see things through, regardless of adversity.

14. Fight to Win. Commandos do business to win. This doesn’t mean you have to lie, cheat, steal, or forfeit your integrity. True commandos lead the way to victory by example. In commando-run organizations, there’s an eagerness to take risks, a determination to overcome all obstacles and a look in the eyes of every employee you just don’t find in other companies.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from Secrets of Special Ops Leadership: Dare the Impossible—Achieve the Extraordinary, by William A. Cohen, copyright 2005.

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.