In the first segment of SpecialOperations.com interview with Brian Decker, we talked about the problem with the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) and the issues that arose from the Special Forces Selection and Assessment Course (SFAS). Brian Decker (‘the smartest guy in Training Group”) was tasked to fix the issues and get the Selection course revamped.
Decker identified that most of the problems that the course was having were social in nature. He realized that the internal drive to succeed is the best indicator for success in SF operators. He learned that each successful candidate responded to stress in their lives with a heightened sense of motivation.
He revamped the third week of SFAS (Team Week) and rather than have a candidate be evaluated as either a patrol leader or as an assistant patrol leader one time during the week, he went to a “leaderless group” exercise, where candidates were given a task as a group and the cadre, would watch and evaluate on how they self-organized around the task and requirement.
He had this to say about the events and assessment of Week 3.
During the events of Week 3, we select the future leaders of the Regiment based on their ability to lead or contribute to the performance of a team in a dynamic and complex environment.
Under Decker’s watch, while the success rate of candidates being selected from SFAS plummeted from around 50 percent to under 30, the candidates that were selected were much more successful in the SFQC with the pass rate rising from 50 percent to closer to 80 percent, which is what the command was looking for.
In the earlier segment of the interview, Decker mentioned the six attributes that the cadre of the SFAS course would look for. Special Forces training in the Special Warfare Center, SWC (referred to as “Swick”) utilized the “Whole Man” Selection Process and the six main attributes that every successful SF Operator should possess include:
So, we’ll pick up where we left off in the interview and talk some more about the changes within the SFAS course. And that was where we had discussed the pass rate for the SFQC had risen to around 80 percent when he left and moved on to his next assignment.
Special Ops: Wow, that is incredibly high, were you surprised?
Decker: It was surprising, and at the time, we thought it might be artificially high by a bit but it reaffirmed to us, that we were doing the right thing in the course. And we felt like, if I had another year to spend at Selection, we’d have taken a lot of the attrition at Selection and put it into a screening method done at home station before they come. So you could greatly reduce it.
But, it ultimately came back to, we had really lost our way. The course had become something where it wasn’t even trying to be a predictor of success. It became just a Rite of Passage, and I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be that, but it must be a validation of the self-worth of the Regiment.
Spec Ops: I think this is a great point going back to the changes in Team Week. Back in the day, like you said a candidate may only get one turn in the barrel as a leader if that event was the second one on the fourth day of Team Week, was he getting a fair shake? I wonder what those percentage of fails were back in our era.
Decker: Right, I think you try to create the course where it is very mentally and physically demanding to want smart, physically capable people. And what makes an excellent Ranger, or CAG operator or SEAL Team Six guy is probably not the same guy who is going to do a great job in an unconventional warfare environment.
It is going to favor different traits, (laughs) Hey, I love shooting too. But that is a much more linear task than setting up the intelligence network or leading an indigenous force to a target in its area of operations.
Spec Ops: The Direct Action (DA) missions will always be big within the Command (SOCOM) because those are more tangible, or are we being too simplistic?
Decker: Yes, look the DA missions are…they’re very easy to measure, they’re very easy to tie results and you know what I’m saying?… It’s very hard in an unconventional warfare environment to capture the quality of the training that you’re doing or measure the impact of the operations.
One of the things I remember when we were in Iraq, we were trying to gauge the impact that the different ODAs (SF A-teams) were having in different areas and people started looking at “who’s doing the most missions? Who’s captured the most weapons?”
And I looked at that and said, you know, the most successful ODA may be where the least amount of stuff is happening. It may just be where that ODA achieved a level of stability in their area and the truth is, we can’t kill our way out of this problem.
Special Ops: How difficult was it to put together a matrix to track all of these guys when they were going thru training and keep track of the pass/fails and why?
Decker: For SFAS? No, it wasn’t difficult at all. We had a software program we called the “Whole Man Program”, that captured all the data and we had the students do their peers in the classroom and that was added. The cadre all had their evaluations that could be done on I-pads, on smartphones and all of that would be captured on a database. And that would spit out a summary.
And how we’d make a decision, in the end, it was interesting, that once you have all that data at the end, it is so much easier to make a decision. It goes back to the 80-20 rule; 80 percent of your success will be attributable to 20 percent of your people. And conversely, 80 percent of your struggles will also be attributable to 20 percent of your people.
And you really saw that. These guys, when you see all four cadre members see that this one guy is the #1, #2, #3 guy on a team, and the peer support are slam dunks. But on the other side, you would also see there was a lot of alignment on who did the poorest.
The question then became, it was a little more difficult to discern on the guys in the middle. And that’s the way most models are. Most models are best at explaining the extremes. And it the way it worked was much easier. We could go thru a Selection Board on about 50 soldiers in a couple of hours. It was very streamlined.
Spec Ops: We tried to write as many assessments for each event and watch not only the leaders but the team members and how well or poorly they supported the leaders.
Decker: One of the interesting things we saw when we changed the Team Week events to the “Leaderless” environment was that the stress level went up significantly. There was no “I got my time in the chute, so all I gotta do is get under this weight.”
We had a couple of guys who had gone thru both systems and they said the leaderless system was exponentially harder because they knew they were always being evaluated. This made it easier on the cadre members.
Spec Ops: How so?
Decker: When we’d finish for the day, you’d have to rank your team, first to last. Then you had to rate their attributes and we rated only four attributes during Team Week, this is a “3”, this is a “1”, this is a “5”.
And if you had a guy in the bottom four of your group, you would have to recommend that he not continue on with the course. And you’d have to write a narrative on that…it was very, very quick.
And instead of looking for everything, we’d break down the events like “Between point A and B you’re looking for this attribute.” We designed those events to specifically bring out those behaviors. And it made it easier to evaluate the events.
We also videotaped events and you’d have to watch that and learn to evaluate what we were looking for to get good quality information.
Spec Ops: These were some significant changes, was there any push-back from the Chain of Command on these changes or were they behind on this. I know Ashton (Col. Naylor) had said that he was totally behind this. What about the rest?
Decker: When General (Ed) Reeder came back on board, to SWC, I went thru it all and explained it to him and he said, “Look I don’t get it.” He said, “I’m going to have to see it because I don’t like the idea of the leaderless group, I think someone has to be in charge.”
But once he came out and watched the training, it was only half-way thru the day, he said, “I got it.” He said, “this is brilliant and we should have been doing this a long time ago. This brings out leadership that we’re looking for in the Regiment.”
And that is what it is all about right? We don’t need people who just tell people what to do. We need people that can coach and pull people together.
Spec Ops: This is why I wanted to talk to you. And the cadre were behind it?
Decker: Not at first, they were against it. But once they got used to the changes, it puts the power back in the cadre’s hands. It is a good, balanced, fair process. We would break down the committees and would reassign the committees from one SFAS class to the next.
And we got extremely creative in how we would design the events to bring out the behaviors that we were looking for. We were throwing curveballs at the candidates all the time… By the long-range movement, the guys who were window shopping and thought they may want to be SF are long gone.
If your motivations weren’t in the right place, if you didn’t understand that being successful was a process, then it was going to be difficult for you to be a select. And the difference was if a guy quit on you in say Log PT, it was because he was hurt. But if a guy quits during Team Week it was because he was overwhelmed.
It was much more mental and the ability to handle and manage the complexity of it under duress. I like the physical aspect of this as much as everybody else but what really defines us as a Regiment is what is above our shoulders.
Spec Ops: And the ideal SF operator, he’s adaptable to other lines?
Decker: Yes, well at that time, we’d get 20-25 VIP visits during the course of a year. And many of them were interested in how we selected our operators, especially the methodology. Of course, they were interested in the mental toughness aspect but the traits and attributes that we’re looking for is what many other industries look for as well.
Look, the physical talent of an individual will only take them so far, but what ultimately makes an operator successful is their character, their makeup, their approach. So, what would stop an SF soldier from reaching his full potential comes down to the way they approach their craft.
Having been in the Regiment and served in combat, I understood what constitutes a good Special Forces operator and that was invaluable because you have to know your own line of work.
The most successful people in any profession all have the same attributes. They all have grit, they all have extremely good work habits. They all have the mental toughness, the confidence which comes from practice and preparation and the optimism and belief that they can achieve. They are extremely intelligent. What makes a good operator…there is a lot of similarities with other professions.
A good SF operator, as with other professions, approaches their craft in the same way. Very much with a growth mindset, they’re more intrinsically motivated by internal factors and view success as a process. They tend to internalize feedback rather than externalize it to their environment. They all tend to be smart specifically to what they do.
SF guys can make decisions in a high-stakes environment so rapidly without having the time to think through every outcome which allows them to make sense of their environment.
Photo courtesy of US Army