“Stirling, then, was seeking a set of qualities that are not often found together: fighters who were exceptionally brave but just short of irresponsible; disciplined but also independent-minded; uncomplaining, unconventional, and, when necessary, merciless.” – Ben Macintyre, Rogue Heroes

Within minutes of cracking the cover of Ben Macintyre’s book, Rogue Heroeswhich details the early days of the British Special Air Service in World War II—I was hooked. Macintyre, whose writing never disappoints, was a known commodity in my personal library. The first book of his I read, Operation Mincemeat, detailed the elaborate deception operation that preceded the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. He followed that with Double Agent, the story of Eddie Chapman, a British double agent who served during the Second World War. Not surprisingly, once I started reading Rogue Heroes, I couldn’t put it down.

When the BBC aired its new historical drama, SAS: Rogue Heroes, I immediately began combing through my bookcases for my original copy. It wasn’t just that Rogue Heroes was captivating reading, my insatiable appetite for World War II history, or the sheer pleasure of reading about the early days of one of the military’s most storied organizations. My fascination with the book—and the series—instead grew from the instant recognition of the characters, whose personalities are all too familiar. Spend any amount of time building a high-performing team, and you learn quickly that those same personalities are absolutely necessary to form, storm, norm, and perform as a cohesive group.

THE HIGH-PERFORMING TEAM

In a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, psychologist Ron Friedman notes three essential needs for any high-performing team: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Of those, relatedness—the need to feel a connection to others—is typically the most difficult to cultivate in a group and what often separates the very best among high-performing teams. What really captured Friedman’s attention, though, was that these top teams weren’t even slowed down by the pandemic. In fact, in many cases, they accelerated through COVID even as other teams struggled. Why?

Friedman’s research revealed that much of it is personality-based, as these teams survive and thrive off a collective spirit driving by individualism. In addition, he noted five key factors at play that keep high-performing teams functioning at peak efficiency. One, they communicate more frequently, as much as twice the rate of their less successful peers. Two, they take a more strategic approach to meetings, requiring written agendas, advance work, and formal feedback on progress. Three, they invest time and effort to build bonds over non-work topics, building authentic and enduring connections. Four, they more openly express and receive positive feedback and appreciation, providing an incentive beyond the standard fare. Five, they’re authentic. They don’t waste time putting on airs. They genuinely and freely present their authentic selves… in both positive and negative ways.

THE BIG FIVE needed on the team

Building those connections—that relatedness—is central to the performance of such teams. Meshing the personalities, moving teams from the form stage to the perform stage to team productivity, is not an easy task. People who perform consistently at the highest level can be, well… difficult. Egos are often in play, expectations are unbelievably high, and patience typically lags somewhere behind. As a result, team members may storm a lot more before they norm.

Nowhere is this truer than with special operating forces, as Macintyre’s example of the formation of the SAS certainly reflects. L Detachment, as they were initially known, was a prototypical high-performing team that achieved remarkably disproportional outcomes. And when you take the time to examine the personalities that formed L Detachment, it’s not at all difficult to recognize some familiar ones.

1.  Planner

One of the “great deceivers” of World War II, Dudley Clarke conceived the SAS in January 1941 to “fool the Italians into fearing that the British might land airborne troops” behind enemy lines.  as part of his deception plan for the Middle East theater. His elaborate ruse—the 1st Special Air Service Brigade—leveraged false news stories in Egyptian papers, dummy parachute drops in the desert, and even men wandering Cairo pretending to be SAS paratroopers.

2. The Leader

Every high-performing team needs a leader, a visionary, a dreamer. Described as “dissolute and nonchalant,” David Stirling was “openly contemptuous of the mid-level military bureaucracy” that stood between him and his vision of a truly elite commando force. In other words, exactly the type of outcomes-focused leader to task with forming a high-risk, high-stakes, high-performing team.

3. The Creative

For such a team to achieve its full potential, you need a creative spark. John “Jock” Lewes was self-disciplined, a “paragon of military virtue.” He shared little in common with Sterling, but their dissimilarities would unite them while strengthening L Detachment. Lewes was the Sterling’s creative spark, the team member who always found a way to transform the impossible into the possible.

4. The Competitor

Competition is often the driving force behind the success of any high-performing team, and no one was more competitive than Robert “Paddy” Mayne. A highly successful rugby player before the war, Paddy Mayne possessed “a deep reservoir of anger” that would produce heroics on the battlefield. As L Detachment formed, he sparked “a strange esprit compounded in equal parts of ruthlessness, guile, competitiveness, and collective determination.”

5. The Team Players

While L Detachment would attract a number of “rough and fierce individuals” during its early days (and in the years to come), Sergeants Jim Almonds and Pat Riley represented the bedrock of the unit. Older, married, and more temperate than many of their contemporaries, Almonds and Riley were hardened “combat veterans who were keen to fight but who also knew how to calculate the odds, retreat if required, and live to fight again.”

If you want to better understand the dynamics of high-performing teams in action, you can generally find any number of well-researched business articles on the subject. Or you can pick up a copy of Rogue Heroes and settle in for an entertaining and informative read with far more detail and a much deeper set of concrete examples. And, maybe, learn a little history along the way.

 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.