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Can disruption improve excellence? Posted on February 8, 2016 in Leadership development

The ONE thing we can all learn from the Special Forces  

Rob Redenbach 

Predictable Human Nature 

An interesting element of human behaviour can be observed when a person brings discipline to a healthy diet and regular exercise, as well as being rewarded with obvious improvements in their physical appearance.

Predictably, friends and colleagues offer positive feedback: praise and congratulations. What’s interesting is that all this warm feedback is in stark contrast to what happens when someone noticeably puts weight on. In this case, there is typically a complete absence of feedback. Not that the reluctance to comment is complete ... people do still talk about friends and colleagues who put on weight, they just avoid saying anything to their face.  

While it is unquestionably nice to receive well-deserved compliments, the compliments themselves have an empty, superficial quality if the recipient is not also afforded the courtesy of objective, more critical feedback, which helps them to improve.  

Excellence and leadership demand quality   

Limiting feedback to compliments and positive platitudes does not empower a person for sustainable development. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of elite special forces, where excellence is routinely demanded.  

While the world of elite sport is frequently cited in the popular press as a bastion of human excellence, there are some important differences between a publicly revered (and highly paid) sporting celebrity and, say, a nameless and deliberately faceless special forces operative fighting Islamic State, on the ground, in northern Iraq. Notable among those differences is the fact that elite sports people have extraordinary levels of talent.  

Talent is a gift. Nothing more. Nothing less. Being born with talent doesn’t make you an inherently superior human being. Of course, talent alone is not enough to achieve sporting stardom — extreme hard work is also required. However, innate talent remains a non-negotiable foundation for anyone who wins gold at the highest level.  

What's talent got to do with it?

What some readers may find surprising is that many special forces operatives are not particularly athletically gifted. What all special forces do have in common though is extraordinary levels of determination.  

Unlike talent, or physical prowess, determination is not a gift. Determination is a choice. When you are seriously sleep deprived, dangerously dehydrated, light headed from extended hunger AND someone is doing their best to kill you, athletic talent will not bridge the gap between where you are and where you need to be. What will fuel your chance of success or survival is determination.  

Demanding quality feedback

I have worked with, and learned from, elite special forces on four continents, and from my observation, they consistently manifest determination in one key area — the pursuit of feedback. Not compliments and accolades, but objective feedback — with the goal of influencing and improving their performance.  

Elite special forces have an almost insatiable appetite for feedback. This one thing, more than anything else, is what enables them to relentlessly pursue excellence. Feedback is structured into everything they do. Their determination for excellence compels them to address those areas where they are not as good as they need to be.

Whether it is physical fitness, weapons skills, first aid, navigation or any other component of their work, they are constantly measured and evaluated. And if — and this is the important part — they are found to be wanting, they are told so, in no uncertain terms. That feedback can be blunt.

Sometimes it is brutal. But never is it sadistic. It is delivered with the understanding that only by proactively addressing weaknesses and inadequacies can an individual maximise their contribution to the team. And it is received with the same understanding.  

What elevates elite special forces then is not the gift of physical prowess, but rather a determination to seek out, and to give, honest feedback. An added bonus for many teams that foster healthy attitudes towards open feedback is enhanced levels of trust and mutual respect among members. And these principles are immediately transferable to any one of us. Like determination itself, giving and receiving feedback is a choice — a choice we each can make.  

You have a choice

Look at what can happen when someone you know starts to put on weight. The tendency to avoid saying what needs to be said and default to feel-good platitudes crosses cultures and demographics. But just because defaulting to platitudes in lieu of constructive criticism is common, that doesn’t mean you have to follow that tired path. Instead, choose to empower the people around you by providing objective, constructive advice while being equally open to receiving feedback in return.  

Think of the ability to give and receive feedback as an attribute, just as physical strength is an attribute. It develops with training and it deteriorates with neglect. If your goal is to become stronger, you start off with exercises that are within the limits of your ability and, over time, increase the frequency and intensity of your workouts. Just because you can’t initially train like a professional body builder, that doesn’t mean you’ll do nothing at all. In the same way, just because you feel uncomfortable with the prospect of fostering a culture where objective feedback is the norm rather than the exception, in no way does that mean you shouldn't at least try.  

In the long term, it is better to try and fail than fail to try.