“The Boy Stirling is mad. Quite, quite mad. However, in war there is often a place for mad people.”

-Commander Eighth UK Army, General Bernard Law Montgomery, Africa

An earlier article of mine focused on the selection and assessment process of the 22nd Special Air Service in North Africa as it began its storied journey into the annals of military history. This time we look at some of the exploits of SAS leaders aiming to draw lessons that might be useful for your organization in this ever-chaotic global environment. Whether you lead a transportation company, a legal-aid organization, a school fundraiser, or a team of commandos, there are lessons from the “quite mad” troopers, NCOs, and officers that have filled the ranks of the SAS.

Inculcate initiative, lots of it

If you have worked with the SAS, you know that individuals on that team are fairly well empowered to make major decisions without calling their boss. When you work in small teams far away from the flagpole, you get used to going with the flow and taking advantage of opportunities. This is one of my favorite examples of how successful you can be if you are ready to act when the conditions are advantageous.

Gambia 1981

Two SAS sergeants and a Major found themselves in the right place at the right time, with the right set of skills.

While the President of Gambia was at the wedding of the Prince of Wales in the UK, a Marxist revolutionary group launched a coup d’état. Taking hostages, including the President’ family, the 400-man rebel army secured the key parts of the capital (airport, radio station and armory).

The Thatcher government cautiously dispatched a known-maverick officer who had taken part in the Iranian Embassy hostage rescue the year prior. Major Crooke and his Sergeant landed in Senegal next door to “assess the situation and report back to London.” In Senegal they connected with a third SAS member and proceeded to head into Gambia to take a look.

Crooke and his NCO’s liked what they saw. The rebels did not have a solid hold yet, so Crooke and his team decided to topple the coup-makers themselves. Slightly outnumbered at 130 to 1, and armed with only pistols and submachineguns, the SAS team took the offensive with a “let’s be having ya attitude.” After dressing as hospital workers and freeing the President’s wife they went to Senegal to quickly gather a militia to resecure the capital. In less than a week they led their ad hoc team to victory and pushed the rebels from the Gambian Capital. Instead of sacking the team for launching a not-so minor military operation, the UK Army awarded the leader with the DSO; a gallantry award below the Victoria Cross.

Taking control of a country and calling back for instructions after the fact might not be something your team needs to specialize in, but knowing your people understand the larger mission well enough to do so is a great feeling. (*Note: LtCol Ian Crooke DSO, died this year)

Misdirection and White lies

It is always useful to have members on your team that are adept at confusing the competition, and when needed, can even fudge the facts enough to solve sticky problems. I am not suggesting you make deceit a core value of your organization, and hopefully no West Pointer was harmed in reading that first sentence. What I am suggesting is that you need to know how to throw your competitors off their game. Information operations and communications experts might call it spin or propaganda. I call it being flexible with the facts.

The SAS under their famed first commander “Big Dave” Stirling knew when to lie and when to tell the truth. The unit was small and operated behind enemy lines, which meant many were captured by the enemy and needed to escape. The aim was to ensure what they said to their captors was not useful to them, or even sent them in the wrong direction. The enemy was savvy and often inserted stool pigeons among the prisoners to fool the SAS prisoners.

Commander Stirling even went so far as to use a forged memo to help his team gain some necessary supplies they could not requisition or steal. At a dinner with Prime Minister Churchill and the commander of the 8th Army in Egypt, Stirling was sneaky enough to ask each of the men to sign a piece of paper to commemorate the dinner. Later he simply typed a message above their signatures that basically said every command in Africa should supply the SAS with whatever they needed.

Lying to the enemy and using the signatures of senior leaders to get supplies is one thing, but never forget that the honor of your unit/team is hard to rebuild if you take it too far. Remember that the famed American Ranger Robert Rogers made this topic his no.4 standing order to his forces, “Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don’t never lie to a Ranger or officer.”

Charm and seizing the moment

One of the wisest decision’s Stirling made in North Africa was allowing a relative of PM Winston Churchill to join the SAS. This ensured a steady stream of personal observations about the brave men of the SAS were being read by the Prime Minister. People would pay millions of dollars to get that kind of direct correspondence with a world leader today. The SAS got it for free. That set-up the invitation to the dinner mentioned above, when Churchill went to the front to assess the war. Stirling kept up his charm during the dinner, and ignoring his superiors’ orders, talked about his desires for the expansion of and empowerment of the SAS. This led to a quiet garden stroll with the Prime Minister to talk freely about the future of the SAS.

And the next day it led to a message at his hotel to send the PM a private outside-channel memo outlining the needs of the SAS. That two-page top secret memo laid out the dreams of the SAS leadership, and did not concern itself with the needs or desires of the conventional commanders it served under. PM Churchill was hooked, and the SAS got its wishes granted. No general officer or bureaucrat in between London and the hideouts of the SAS desert pirates was able to interfere substantially in Stirling’s plans.

Making the hard calls

If you have leaders brave enough and a culture strong enough, your unit can survive and even excel after they have to make tough calls or suffer setbacks. On a Benghazi mission in WWII (foreshadowing 2011 maybe) things did not go well. The lies and misdirection failed the SAS, and they drove into a massive ambush. This led to the SAS calling off the major operation that the higher headquarters had forced them to undertake.

If telling your superiors, you failed wasn’t enough, the unit also had to run for their lives to get away. Along the withdrawal the enemy hunted them mercilessly and many were wounded. This led to another tough decision. The SAS did not have enough trucks to move all the able men and all the wounded. Some wounded would need to stay behind and be captured by the Italians so the others could survive. The choices were made and the men understood the sacrifice. In the days after the debacle, the SAS was actually rewarded for their more successful previous operations—they were finally awarded full regimental status in the UK Army.

Stirling himself was personally thanked with a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. A bitter-sweet outcome was that the wounded and the medic left behind would die in enemy prison camps and hospitals. Making hard calls is a critical skill to teach your team’s leaders, and to ensure they understand that those calls may haunt them forever.

Do the impossible

As the SAS was trying to prove its relevancy in the 1950s, the Sultanate of Oman offered a chance to do so. The opportunity was to put down a Saudi-backed rebellion that involved the future of the fledgling oil exploration and extraction in Oman. The UK Army had fought the rebels to a stalemate over a 2-year period in assistance to the Sultan of Oman. But on the Green Mountains of Oman (Jebel Akhdar) the rebels could not be fully defeated by a conventional Army.

Enter D Squadron SAS, fresh from a counterinsurgency operation in Malaya. Most in the Army did not think this small unit could succeed where the others had failed. The men took some time to acclimatize, get new equipment, and work on longer-range marksmanship that wasn’t possible in the jungle. Then they started attacking up the mountains and eventually pushed the Rebels out of their hide spots. It had only taken six weeks to put the enemy on the run. Now the SAS needed help for the final assault on the remaining strongholds.

“A” Squadron arrived from Malaya and went through a similar reset before joining D Squadron for the final push. The SAS showed superhuman strength and endurance fighting on the cold mountains and chasing the rebels like goats at high altitude. The rebels were not ready for this level of determination and their sentries failed to warn of the rapid advances. As the SAS force resupplied themselves by parachute containers ahead of the final push, the enemy’s will to fight was broken. After being chased by the SAS from their impenetrable fortress the enemy thought the parachuted supplies were UK paratroopers joining the fight. The enemy fled to Saudi Arabia; the stalemate was broken. A small motivated force proved it was more capable in ten weeks than a more expensive larger force.

Act before you think

A final act of valor from Oman completes this quick study of SAS leadership lessons. A few years after the Jebel Akhdar operation the SAS found themselves aiding the Omani Sultan again as they battled Marxist guerillas in Southern Oman. The SAS training and advisory team at Mirbat Port was attacked by the enemy nearly 50 years ago in July of 1972.

With only small arms the SAS training team began to fight back after some confusion over the identity of the approaching force. As they called for reinforcements the roughly 9-man SAS team had to wait for the enemy to get closer and enter the effective range of their rifles.

A senior sergeant on the team knew they would need to thin-out the enemy before it got too close so he ran out of the larger fort and headed towards a 25-pound artillery piece outside a smaller Omani fort. Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba took on the 6-man job of loading and firing the big gun at the enemy. He clearly had not thought through the requirements for the weapon, but knew he needed to dare make a try. Somehow, he was able to fire the artillery piece at a one-round-per-minute pace. He pulled the attention of the enemy away from his team at the fort.

Sergeant Labalaba was then badly injured and radioed for a volunteer to help him. SAS Trooper Sekonaia Takavesi made the 800-meter dash through heavy gunfire to help his sergeant. Sekonaia tended to his sergeant’s wound, fired at the enemy, and motivated nearby Omani forces to join the fight. As the enemy approached, the Sergeant and Trooper lowered the artillery piece and used it like a massive shotgun to fire into the advance. Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba made his last effort to stop the attack and was killed moving to put a 60mm mortar into use.

Understanding the importance of the big gun, the SAS leader, Captain Kealy, and Trooper Tobin also moved towards the artillery emplacement. The three SAS men would use the gun until Omani Air Force and G Squadron SAS reinforcements arrived to push the enemy back. Trooper Tobin would also die from his wounds in the defense of base. The “Mirbat Gun” made famous by the fallen Fijian SAS Sergeant sits in a UK museum today, a testament to the importance of acting before you think too much about the problem. For having the guts to try, Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba inspired his men, and showed the team how the enemy could be held at bay by one man doing the work of six.

Do you need mad rogues?

You may struggle at times trying to work with members of your team that are “quite mad.” But there is a place on every team for the daring and unconventional. I like to ask people who they would call on if they were trapped in Chinese prison and needed to be rescued. As you look at your team is there a person or two that would be able to easily take over a small country based on charm? Is there someone that can hotwire a car and use it to rush a pregnant woman to a hospital in a foreign country, and then whisk her away without paying the bill? Do you have a team-member that can come up with millions of dollars in cash and deliver it over international borders to end a kidnapping?

Too often martinets and so-called leadership experts want you to believe that you need a team of overly-professional and uber-obedient angels to be successful. In a perfect world that might be true, but this world is not perfect, in fact, it is “quite, quite mad.” In this world your chances are better with a handful of rogues with a deep commitment to mission accomplishment and deeper aversion to rules, than a well-bred and by-the-book company of soldiers.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.