The 5 Special Operations Truths Your Business Should Adopt

Published on December 24, 2020

From the use of the Green Berets during the initial invasion of Afghanistan, to the rescue of Captain Phillips, to the raids on Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—US Special Operations Forces (SOF) have proven their effectiveness again and again.

People have long been fascinated by the discipline, drive, and determination of these operators, who routinely deliver results, no matter what challenges they face. The business world, in particular, has been drawn to Special Operations because it is exactly what every business strives to be: innovative, agile, and effective.

Where many businesses get it wrong, Special Operations gets it right, leading business leaders to search for the answer to the all-important question: What makes Special Operations so special?

There are five fundamental SOF truths. These axioms guide everything Special Operations believes and does, from day-to-day activities to long-term strategic planning, and they are at the core of what makes Special Operations so special. If you want to win, in war or business, these truths are where you start.

#1: Humans Are More Important Than Hardware

SOF units are outfitted with the latest technology and equipment, and while this hardware certainly offers a competitive advantage, it is nothing compared to the advantage of the humans behind it.

“Technology is just an enhancer,” says General William Boykin. “We win with people, end of story.”

Hardware (and software too) is only a competitive advantage until your competitors acquire or reach the same capability. In business, your company’s product or service is part of your hardware and cannot offer a long-term competitive advantage. It’s only a matter of time before another company offers the same—or better—product or service. To continue to thrive, you need to adapt, and that requires the right people.

Human capital, not your product or service, is your most critical resource, your only true competitive advantage. 

#2: Quality is Better Than Quantity

Quality is better than quantity. As Colonel Charlie Beckwith, founder of a highly selective and specialized Army Special Operations unit, said, “I’d rather go down the river with seven studs than with a hundred shitheads.” 

History is filled with stories of smaller, talented teams defeating far larger forces, in both war and business. Our society has become enamored with volume, like the obsession with social media followers, but the pursuit of volume often leads to a reduction of your standards. Quality will almost always win over quantity. Ten talented salespeople can outsell an untalented team of fifty or even more.

This means that your hiring efforts should be about talent, not headcount. If you have ten positions that need to be filled, rather than filling all ten seats with whoever you can find, it is better to fill five positions with talented individuals and keep looking. 

#3: Special Operations Forces Cannot be Mass-Produced

Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced, because operators are not “produced” at all. Rather, they are revealed during the course of assessment, selection, and training programs.

There are certain characteristics required to become an operator—traits like drive, resiliency, adaptability, team-ability, and more—and these attributes cannot be taught. Either someone has the requisite character, or they don’t.

You could put someone through every single training course—Special Operations Combat Medic Course, Breacher Course, Sniper Course, you name it—but if they don’t have the fundamental mindset needed to be an operator, they will fail in high-pressure situations.

The same is true in the business world. While you can mass-acquire warm bodies to fill roles, you cannot mass-acquire talent. Talent is rare and cannot be manufactured. No matter how good the instructors are, no matter how good the training is, you cannot create talent where it does not already exist.

#4: Competent Special Operations Forces Cannot be Created After Emergencies Occur

One of the most critical emergencies Special Operations faces is declaration of war. Every time a war starts, like clockwork, the president and secretary of defense want more SOF operators, and the SOF leaders always refuse to deviate from the assessment and selection process. 

When an emergency like war occurs, time is limited. You cannot build talent into an organization under time pressure. It takes a long time to turn a high-potential individual into a high performer. The selection of talent is only part one; the development of that talent into a high performer is part two.

For this reason, successful talent acquisition requires well-thought-out, forward-thinking planning. It is an eternal pursuit, not something you can turn on and off whenever an emergency occurs. 

Additionally, emergencies require fast, decisive action. If your competitor releases an innovative new product or service that jeopardizes your sales, you don’t have time to waste searching for the right people to develop your own product or service in response. You need talent to already be in place when the emergency occurs. 

#5: Most Special Operations Forces Require Non-SOF Assistance

Special Operations Forces are supported by an incredible number of people. There are people who gather and analyze intel to guide missions, people who handle logistics, people who handle administrative tasks, and more.

Operators are incredibly respectful and appreciative of their non-SOF support, because they understand that they would not be able to succeed without this support. Non-SOF assistance allows them to focus on their strengths and primary mission—winning our nation’s battles.

Non-SOF support members are heavily screened, not just for security reasons, but also to identify talent. Non-SOF support is critical to the success of the Special Operators, so they, too, must possess the attributes of talent.

In your company, you likely put a priority on certain departments. For most companies, it might be sales, marketing, engineers, or coders. It is okay to prioritize these roles, but you need talent in every function across your organization. 

Company results don’t occur in a vacuum. Everything is part of a larger team, so you need talent in all departments and at all levels.

5 Business Truths

The five SOF truths have led to a foundational talent mindset that drives the success of Special Operations. These truths directly translate to business truths:

  1. Human capital is your most critical resource, your only true competitive advantage in any industry.
  2. It’s not about a head count; it’s about talent.
  3. Hard skills can be taught and thus mass-produced, but talent cannot. Talent is innate and hard to create where it does not exist.
  4. Successful talent acquisition requires well-thought-out, forward-thinking planning. It takes time to develop a world-class talent pool.
  5. It’s a team effort. All supporting business functions, all departments, are crucial to your business’s success.

By adopting and living by these truths, you can begin to build the talent needed to achieve Special Operations levels of victory.


Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired US Navy SEAL officer with 20 years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

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