The Myth of SOF Leadership and the Need for Urgency

Myth of SOF Leadership

By MAJ Eliann Carr (US Army) and SFC Dave Hargett (US Army).

The SOF environment is often idolized as a fast paced, quick response operational tempo, generated by the immediacy of events and the ramifications of inaction. Many SOF practitioners pride themselves in their ability to remain steadfast under excessive stress, which is a personal characteristic honed from the ability to sustain an immense amount of pressure and demonstrate the ability to complete the mission. A fallacy in thought; however, lies within the technique of the leader to manage their team and accomplish the mission, not specifically the accomplishment of the mission alone.

Efficient Leadership

The pressures placed on SOF practitioners are notably more dynamic than conventional forces, which is often why leaders take the approach to manage their teams with efficient leadership traits. These traits are garnered from having the need for immediate results and the constant sense of urgency. Leaders who choose to use this method to control their team have characteristics of often reordering priorities to meet the demand rather than set the demand to align with priorities. These leaders hold an excessive degree of frustration with an ambient stress level rating in mid to high. At this moment, it is important to understand that the efficient leader produces results, regardless of quality or impact on those around them.

This form of leader will constantly seek to do the right thing and rarely take time to reflect. Accolades and praise of a job well done motivates this leader to be considered mostly, a hard worker and strictly project focused. Efficient leaders formulate the continual praise of completed results (disregarding the assessment of effectiveness; only completion) into a predictive analysis. This analysis by the leader, generally, will ensure an emphasis on their ability to control results rather than the effect of the results controlled. This, however, will consistently occur at an exceptional cost.

For example: Lieutenant General Douglas Lute was interviewed by the Washington Post and during this interview was quoted, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing…What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” These questions posed by a senior leader within the National Security Staff showcase the cost of years of efficient leadership and places onus on leaders at all levels to rectify this systemic problem within the military as a whole.

The efficient leader, to meet the next urgent issue or make an issue urgent if one does not exist, will typically use manipulation and threatening tactics to achieve the desired result of task completion. They will disregard input from others and see those that provide constructive feedback or question processes as confrontational or defiant followers. A revealing component of an efficient leader is that they often demand their subordinates to do what they are told, simply because of the rank or status of the person giving the direction. This demand is not for any effective outcome, but for the simple effect that someone must listen to them. The constant disregard for others eventually creates a toxic environment that perpetuates stagnation and apathy of team members. Although efficient-type leadership is necessary at times of extreme urgency; circumstances, not the leader’s priorities, must dictate the nature of urgency. When the need for urgency exists as the steady state form of leadership, it will initiate the disintegration of a team. This fragmentation of any team will rapidly lead to ineffective and at times disastrous outcomes, despite the leaders demands for results.

Effective Leadership

There is an alternative form of leadership counter to efficient leadership that allows leaders to develop a foundation of cohesion and trust that prepares teams to respond instead of react to emergent situations: effective leadership. An effective leader can balance between a job well done and the impact of results by complimenting sustained results with sustained relationships. The effective leader understands the emphasis of dynamic leadership and deliberate planning over the efficient leader who uses deliberate-type leadership and relies disproportionally on dynamic planning.

The efficient leader will seek to do the right things, as in performance, whereas the effective leader seeks to do things right, as in mastery. Through firmly established priorities, an effective leader can focus on fewer tasks and complete them to exceptional standard. Because the effective leader places relationships equal to mission success, he or she can garner the strength and support of a team instead of often having to work solo. General (Ret.) Schwarzkopf once said, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” It is through the comradery and quality an effective leader fosters the conceptualization to build a team, not merely manage it.

Due to the nature of the Special Operation environment, the determination of urgency should not be a comparative state. Rather, an assessment of this talented environment must emphasize the need for an increase in effective leadership to better prepare a team for the demand when called to action. From the deployed environment to preparation for deployment, leaders within the SOF community can foster resolute balance by using effective leadership to build the capability and competency of a team, while applying efficient leadership only in situations of extreme urgency. These moments of excessive pressure will ultimately demonstrate the superior power and stealth of the SOF team as the refiner’s fire, solidifying their metal, not the moment in which they break.



“At War With the Truth”, The Washington Post.

“Norman Schwarzkopf: 10 Quotes on Leadership and War”,, December 27, 2012.


Major Eliann Carr is an Information Operations Planner and currently deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. She holds a Doctoral degree in Human Development and Educational Psychology from the University of South Dakota. Previous research spans the array of social science spectrum, to include perspective of Muslim image, leadership development, and interpersonal conflict resolution in families.

Sergeant First Class David Hargett is a Psychological Operations Specialist and currently deployed in support of Operation Spartan Shield, as a Detachment Sergeant. He holds an associate degree in General Studies and is currently pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Maryland.

Photo: Members of Qwat al-Khasah, Special Forces Iraq, on an operation in the Hamrin Mountains. Photo by SGT Cambrin Bassett, Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR), June 23, 2020.

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