Secrets of Special Ops Leadership
by William A. Cohen
reviewed by Michael A. Lally

I love leadership books. I love military history. I am a fan of a good anecdote and liberally borrow from sports and military histories to illustrate points. However, I also understand that my "special project team" at the customer management company I run is not a SEAL team infiltrating caves in the mountains of Afghanistan searching for terrorists.

In Secrets of Special Ops Leadership, Dr. William A. Cohen provides a high level overview of how to realize (competitive) advantage by creating, developing and motivating "commando" teams. This introductory guidebook details the process of leading these teams to implement his six principles of competitive advantage. Dr. Cohen is a graduate of both West Point and the Drucker School of Management; the influences of both institutions shine in this book through an abundance of supporting anecdotes from military and business history.

From Leonidas leading the Spartans against Xerxes at Thermopylae in 484 B.C. to international special operations groups in Iraq and Afghanistan today, Dr. Cohen has analyzed commando teams throughout history. He finds the common ground among all commando teams, synthesizes their techniques and operating standards, and applies them to modern day business situations.

One of the strongest elements of Dr. Cohen's work - and one I would have liked to see him explore in more depth - is his acknowledgement that as a business leader, you should pick the techniques that are "right" for you and your organization at the time. He states what most authors trying to sell a business leadership book will not: if you walk away with one or two good nuggets to explore, adapt and even implement, you are well on your way to improving as a leader. It is foolish to think that any one book will be a perfect solution to all of your unique complex business problems.

Cohen illustrates his points with a collection of inspirational military and business stories. While anecdotal support can be an effective literary technique, this book is weighted down with examples. It is simply too heavy. He eventually exhausts his supply of military and business tales and resorts to the old standbys - sports, movies and theatre. He even throws in Donald Trumps' television reality show "The Apprentice." Any regular reader of business literature will find his examples both familiar and repetitive (e.g., Ray Kroc, Mary Kay Ash, Steve Jobs).

There is value, though.

Secrets of Special Ops Leadership provides a 14-step plan to leading teams that I would recommend to anyone just starting out as a supervisor or manager. Dr. Cohen shares techniques for selecting a team, committing to them, getting them to commit to each other, and strategies for motivation and discipline. He borrows from Tom Peters' "management by walking around" and encourages leaders to get out of their offices and lead from the front lines.

Two standout takeaways for me are the definitive characteristics of a commando (high-performance) team and the description of a "take-charge" leader. He also lists the four major characteristics of every team, which is valuable. Cohen says, "…flocks of geese, football teams, and units of military and business commandos" share certain characteristics. Every team, good or bad, has degrees of cohesion, teamwork, morale and "esprit de corps."

Cohesion is a team's ability to put the interests of the team above their own. Teamwork describes members working together to maximize individual strengths, while minimizing weaknesses. Morale is a measure of each team member's inner sense of well-being. "Esprit de corps" is the common spirit of the team as a whole.

According to Cohen, highly performing teams share the following common traits:

  • They demonstrate coordinated interaction

  • They are more efficient working together than alone

  • They ENJOY working together

  • They rotate responsibility formally or informally

  • There is mutual care, nurturing and encouragement among team members

  • A high level of trust exists between team members

  • Everyone is interested in the success of everyone else on the team

In order to lead commandos, you must be a "take-charge" leader. A take-charge leader, as described by Cohen, is one that:

  • Steps up and takes control of a situation

  • Establishes objectives early

  • Communicates effectively with the team she leads

  • Acts boldly and decisively

  • Leads by example (from the front)

  • Knows that she will never have enough information and must trust her instincts

All in all, Secrets of Special Ops Leadership is a quick read that covers a broad topic range, but is limited in depth. This book will serve as a good primer on leadership and team building. It delivers a few solid morsels for you to discuss with your teams and even those that lead YOU. Remember, you don't have to digest everything Dr. Cohen discusses. A leader would be best suited to utilize a section or two as a discussion guide to bring your team together and talk about ways to improve as a unit.

Secrets of Special OPS Leadership:
Dare the Impossible--Achieve the Extraordinary

by William A. Cohen
September 2005

Mike Lally is a contact center expert, relationship builder, change ninja, and talent developer - author of, National Manager of Sales and Marketing for Frontier, A Citizens Communications Company, and occasional book reviewer for The CEO Refresher. To have your book reviewed and featured in The CEO Refresher please send a review copy to Mike Lally 23 Lost Feather Drive, Fairport, NY 14450

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