Reflecting on my last 19 years in Special Operations, I’ve encountered a variety of leaders, ranging from excellent, mediocre, and the most influential to myself- the Tyrant. It’s the experiences you don’t want to have that often provide the best learning outcomes and opportunities for you to exercise your leadership intuition and muscle. It pre-exposes you to mistakes you can avoid when taking the helm. Leaders aren’t victims; they look for the problem, learn from it, or figure out how to make it their fault.
Throughout my time with my Tyrant leader (Task Unit Leader), I gained many takeaways, spanning numerous topics, which I categorized into three main components: Balance, Seek Counsel, and Communication. These components appear self-explanatory, though the vast subsets within each can accumulate to failure if neglected. These components are all interconnected. Ignoring one piece creates a problem in the next. Example: Outpacing the men (Balance) via email leadership (Communication) contributes to Independent Ideation (Seek Counsel). Below are the components I identified over the last three years and the key takeaway to consider as a leader.
Component #1 Balance (There is more to life than work)
Outpacing the Men: As a leader, if work is your only hobby, you will get too far ahead of your teammates. You will work in a bubble without scrutiny of your “good ideas.” Often, being too proactive can lead to your whole team being reactive. Collaboration is a crucial ingredient.
- My Task Unit leader was a seven-day/week worker. He consumed information and sought opportunities to employ his teammates in any way possible. It’s what you want until you don’t. His relentless pursuit quickly turned into never-ending research projects for his mid-level leaders. The “good ideas” promptly began to affect maintaining foundational operator skills. While he planned in a silo on the weekends, his eagerness would quickly drift into the lanes of others with results based primarily on his assumptions and not collaborating with the experienced teammates he had at his disposal.
Skewed Perception: Working double the amount of time as your teammates can alter your perception of what you feel is expected of them. Key leaders should put in more time than others, though there shouldn’t be an expectation to mimic work capacity.
- As it stood, my Task Unit leader worked 100+ hour weeks(not deployed), incredible work ethic, referred to by many as a machine. He would routinely state that he didn’t expect anybody to keep the pace at which he did. However, the rate at which he processed information and delegated tasks forced a duplicate response. Given the type A personality associated with special operations, no one wants to be the person holding up the train. It was an unrealistic expectation that he thought he wouldn’t get a reciprocal effort from his teammates. This misperception burned guys out and created incredible frustration when their efforts resulted in nothing- hence outpacing the men.
Component #2 Seek Counsel (There are more intelligent and more experienced people than you- FIND THEM)
Planning in Isolation: Without external input, a leader may miss out on valuable insights, ideas, or alternative viewpoints- reducing new and innovative approaches. Secondly, isolation creates tunnel vision, where seeing potential flaws or risks becomes difficult.
- Within almost all military structures, there is an officer (decision maker- Task Unit leader) and a senior enlisted member. The purpose of the senior enlisted is to help inform decisions made by an officer, in this case, the Task Unit leader. This relationship was nonexistent. His approach was to figure everything out himself. Because of this mentality, planning for operations did not flow smoothly. It became two people working against each other, with one person carrying the bigger stick. Due to the lack of BALANCE of the Task Unit leader, planning in isolation was amplified. The frustration of his senior enlisted counterpart became so immense that he requested to leave.
Slinky Effect: A by-product of planning in isolation. This effect results from a task or mission already in motion and the leader changing the plan after completing all preparations. This results in teammates hurrying up to wait and continuous replanning.
- The slinky effect was a frequent occurrence from my Task Unit leader. It typically began with an opportunity he identified but did not seek insight from others. For instance, he presented a spur-of-the-moment training opportunity within a military exercise in another country with less than one month until execution. The sheer logistical hurdles required to execute this task at his desired level needed to be more attainable, but he was unwilling to accept this feedback. As senior members scrutinized his plan, he would have to constantly adjust, going back and forth in the planning process, eventually concluding that no funding was available to participate in this event. Seeking counsel early on could have avoided the back-and-forth wasted planning efforts.
Overselling Capability: Not knowing the true extent of a capability can lead to placing your teammates in dangerous situations. It can lead to a loss of credibility when you aren’t able to deliver, ultimately degrading your organization. Lastly, overselling can put undue pressure on resources and support personnel to meet unrealistic promises.
- Overselling capability was something my Task Unit leader was prone to doing while interacting or planning with other military entities. He was vastly inexperienced in our niche mission set and capabilities to where he had never experienced what was required to execute the mission. The senior enlisted members always encouraged his involvement in training to gain a better perspective on what he was asking his men to do. He never took advantage of these opportunities, and the downfall was a loss of creditability among his teammates and a tendency to oversell capability because of inexperience and a refusal to let his subject matter experts have a seat at the table.
Component #3 Communication (It’s a two-way street)
Leading Through Email: It is convenient but comes with too many pitfalls. It’s prone to miscommunication due to the lack of non-verbal cues, tone, and intent, leading to confusion and conflicts. There is potential for delayed responses resulting in emails sitting in inboxes for hours or even days, causing decision and response time delays. Promotes inefficient discussion for complex or sensitive topics that may not be effectively addressed through email, leading to long threads or unclear resolutions.
- The primary method of communication for my Task Unit leader was email. It wasn’t due to the inability to talk in person; he thought it was an efficient way to capture and relay all the information he wanted to the right people. He would draft an email over the weekend containing all his new tasks and initiatives and delegate to whom would be taking point. A significant downfall is that it received no input from his senior enlisted advisor and was a one-way conversation. This approach to leading initiatives just created questions and frustration. More often than not, this email was just until we could meet in person and have a two-way dialogue. However, until then, it was confusion and frustration.
Explain the Why: Talk to your people like peers, and they will perform as such. Creating understanding in the beginning will give you buy-in at the end.
- Our Task Unit leader rarely explained the why. When he did, this would lead to senior enlisted asking follow-up questions that would poke holes in his plan, creating uncertainty. This questioning exposed a weakness that the Task Unit leader did not receive well and created tension between him and the person asking the question. Not often, but it did happen; his response for the “why” would be, “because I am the Task Unit Commander.” Once a response like that occurs, all buy-in was lost.
Weaponizing paperwork: Continuous performance documentation will create distrust and disengagement from teammates, leading to paranoia. Paperwork used as a tool for control rather than appropriate means will create an erosion of respect toward leadership.
- One of the leading tyrannical traits that my Task Unit leader displayed was his use of documentation on his junior officers.Each quarter, my Task Unit officers would receive an extensive written debrief of their performance. The scrutiny and pettiness at which the Task Unit leader documented every detail was unfathomable. Clearly, this documentation was being used as a manipulation tool to make his junior officers bend to his will. His control tactics didn’t work, instead it created an immense separation between the junior officers and the Task Unit leader. A loss of rapport and extreme paranoia set in. He hindered their ability to lead through documented micromanagement.
The Outcome and Transitioning to Toxic
My Tyrant leader did the opposite of my takeaways. He neglected BALANCE by outpacing his men and forming an unattainable standard for others to match. Due to lacking BALANCE, he never sought COUNSEL in planning or decision-making, evolving into inefficiencies and distrust. Poor COMMUNICATION practices led to disgruntled teammates and paranoia.
No one is innocent. From this experience, I and the other mid-level leaders became an incubator consumed with negativity, paranoia, and overt disdain. The inefficiencies from daily bitching and closed-door rants became noticeable to the junior Operators.
When we could have face-to-face meetings with our leader, it would often turn into disagreements, derailing the entire discussion. We began to lack professionalism and the required focus for the team’s mission.
Our junior Operators began to make offhand comments about our leader- highlighting that we weren’t holding the line. We were forming our toxic environment, and our command leadership took notice.
There was no good end to this situation. Command leadership quickly dissected the problem and took decisive action.
Removal of our Task Unit leader was not an option. He possessed an essential qualification that without him, all possibilities for deploying would cease. He received an administrative blemish on his record and was placed under strict communication protocols, requiring more face-to-face engagement with his Task Unit. Any other infractions could lead to career-stalling circumstances.
Command leadership replaced the Task Unit senior enlisted advisor with another senior NCO and shifted him to a different command.
I and three other Task Unit leaders independently met with the Commanding Officer and Command Senior Enlisted. Two members received non-punitive letters of caution for being unprofessional and promoting a toxic environment. I and one other received verbal counseling for fostering a toxic environment.
There is no doubt that I was a culprit to toxicity. My biggest regret is not recognizing the fantastic leadership opportunity in the turmoil of a tyrant leader and this environment. This was an opportunity to manage relationships to make the mission work. To set an example within the Task Unit of what a professional should look like. Though missed, I reflect on it often and feel fortunate to have had this experience.
The author is an active duty SOF operator.
********* Interested in being a paid MTI Contributor? Email firstname.lastname@example.org a current resume and 3 topic ideas.