Lessons learned from a SF ODA Team Leader in Afghanistan

Perozi village, Panjwai district

By: Nicholas Luis

These are the lessons I would have appreciated hearing as a cadet before graduating…

1. Building and Maintaining Elite and Diverse Teams: I actually had the ability to recruit 3x of my current teammates that I was in the SF Qualification Course with. If you’re going to build a team you have to know what the team’s purpose is (i.e. CDRs intent/ mission statement/ 2-LVLS up expanded purpose etc.) There’s a whole book series by Jim Collins (Good to Great…Great by Choice…which I highly recommend for all cadets) and one of the principles he discusses is “getting the right people on the bus [and knowing who to get off the bus]. Of the 3x people I recruited, each of them falls along, and balance, the spectrums of aggressive and articulate…together they make a solid core of junior NCOs who lead soldiers in combat. One important part of ‘building’ and ‘maintaining’ is expectation management. Soldiers want to know what exactly is expected of them, what kind of leigh weigh they have, and when they’re getting it right or wrong. This is where formal counseling comes in and informal conversations just in daily life/ operations. Formal counseling is an excellent tool to be direct in holding soldiers to a standard, and of letting them know the standard that they should hold you to as their leader. Specifying the latter portion will help build credibility when you: make a mistake, take ownership and then be a part of the solution.

2. New Officer in a well-established team: I think everyone has his or her own method for this, but I’ve found being genuine to be a solid approach. People will know right away if someone is being phony or genuine, and soldiers are no different. It’s especially important to be genuine to one’s personality when stressors start stacking up and decisions need to be made. The way that a leader handles stress will make or break his or her credibility.  Being genuine will help with both “being one of the guys/ girls”, but also help one maintain the professional attitude that is required to be a commander. First and foremost, the soldiers need the officer to act like a commander, make decisions, and have a strong backbone when tough decisions need to be made…especially when there is a lot to lose. My short 11 months in SF thus far has provided more opportunities for this than I can imagine. My last BN CDR in the 82nd had an interesting take on being competent versus confident when first showing up to a unit. The training we go through as leaders and the dedication to self-improvement should enable one to be both… however, if someone is confident and easy to interact with, but they lack technical or tactical expertise—soldiers will go “Yeah he’s cool, but I don’t know man he’s always lost.” If someone is socially awkward but knows his or her stuff—soldiers will go “Yeah that guy is weird, but you know what I’d follow him in to battle.” I remember when I was at school it was very uncool to be “brutal” and to know or think about tactics…but the fact of the matter is that when you show up to a unit you better know your stuff, and it’s not okay to be tactically unsound. That’s actually the minimum standard of an elite team. Elite teams are made up of people that don’t have to be told to be proactive because they have a desire to seek out ways they can better themselves and those around them.

3. Solve Problems: This is an officer’s bread and butter and what the Thayer Method/ math class for Psych majors/ CLDT etc. is all aboutà thinking critically and solving problems that you may not even have technical context to. You need to first have a method to problem solve if you’re going to teach and lead others how to do so. If you want to lead an organization, you have to guide how they think. In my opinion, a lot of what an officer finds him or herself doing is collaborating ideas to move the pace of the team forward; thus, having a set of references for how the team should be thinking will help the leader gauge whether or not the team is on the right track. The commander’s intent that I got for this deployment was ‘Degrade ISIS-K’… everything we’ve done has been through in-depth analysis, a lot of collaboration, constant war-gaming and a dedication to problem solving. You should expect your subordinates to problem solve, which means you have to teach and/or communicate to them HOW you want them to approach problems and then hold them to it. Amazing things will happen when you problem solve from the bottom level…one of which will be the respect for the command environment, as well as a noticeable amount of energy to take action for whatever decision you make as a leader because the team was a part of the solution.

4. Manage Relationships and Conflict: This 100% will happen. Soldiers in your unit will not get along with each other. Not all your soldiers will like you, for one reason or another. The leader needs to have a means to be objective in identifying if someone’s behavior is a detriment to the team’s performance, and when that is the case—formal counseling can be a tool for this. I think that it’s an underestimated and probably underused TTP to sit someone down, look them in the eye, and tell them their behavior is not helping the team, with the reason(s) why, and what the expectations are for required changes. That comes down to being a professional and removing emotions from a decision. Part of being a leader during conflict is literally being at the front of it, taking it head on, and doing so in the right setting. That whole bit about “An officer on duty knows no one…” holds true and is especially relevant when there are conflicts within a team and when objective decisions need to be made that don’t insinuate any kind of favoritism.

5. General lessons

  • Great leaders are needed everywhere (Combat arms/ support/ deployed/ garrison…it doesn’t matter)
  • The officer is the moral compass of the organization: as long as something is not: unethical, illegal or immoral…you’re probably fine
  • Clear and concise communication is a must—know when to elaborate with details, and when to be direct and to the point
  • Be comfortable managing risk—this means identifying it, establishing controls, and taking action before during and after a crisis or event
  • Be comfortable making risky decisions when there is a lot to lose

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CPT Nicholas Luis is a Special Forces ODA Team Leader currently forward deployed.  

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Photo Credit: US Department of Defense