At a recent defense industry conference, the commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. James Slife, said that the Air Force’s selection process for future special operators will be less about a candidate’s physical performance and more about the candidate’s attributes, suggesting perhaps that a candidate’s analytical and diplomacy skills would be a heavy focus of the selection process.
Slife is correct that service members in special operations are likely to exercise their analytical skills more than their extraordinary physical prowess, but “more than” doesn’t mean that they will never need to rely on their physical performance skills. And it is in those moments when special operations members must employ exceptional physical competency that we want them to possess not just good physical strength, but an unrivaled willpower to meet the physical and mental demands of the mission.
And this is where Slife has been misinformed by those who propose such changes to the Air Force’s special operations training. His advisers appear to be surprisingly unaware of what attributes those arduous physical tests reveal in special operations candidates or why it is necessary to measure those attributes through extraordinarily physically demanding drills.
The simple answer is grit. It is a candidate’s grit that must be put to the test in order to weed out those who have it from those who don’t. Diplomacy, analytical skills, and other soft skills are certainly necessary for special operations troops to excel in the unique missions for which they are assigned, but it is their ability to display exceptional tenacity — their grit — when things go sideways on a mission (which any special operations members will tell you is more commonplace than not) that makes them “special.”
It is when missions deviate from the plan or when the special operators are under duress that their grit can mean the difference between mission success or utter failure. Dr. Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the foremost authorities on “grit,” notes that it is not IQ nor pedigree that is the greatest predictor of a person’s success, it is their grittiness.
Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long term goals.” The ability to maintain the stamina and commitment to seeing a task through to its conclusion despite fierce obstacles and setbacks is a hallmark of special operations units.
The proof can be found in some of America’s most well-known special operations missions. It was not analytical skills that allowed the SEALs to battle against incredible odds on the infamous Operation Red Wings and later allowed Marcus Luttrell to survive. It was their mental fortitude. Their grit. It wasn’t diplomacy skills that enabled Neil Roberts and John Chapman to (separately) battle single-handedly against overwhelming enemy forces in ferocious conditions despite both being mortally wounded. It was their unique will to overcome any obstacle and persevere. Their grit.
Grit is perhaps the most critical of the attributes that is tested and forged in the physically demanding exercises of special operations training programs. Slife notes that future selection processes may be less focused on “how quickly [candidates] can do a ruck march with a 30-pound ruck and how many pull-ups and push-ups” they can do. To the casual observer, Slife’s comments make sense. However, it is not the candidates’ physical strength that is tested in these events. The physical exercises are merely the mechanism by which the training actually achieves the true results of the test. It is in these grueling physical events that candidates discover whether or not they possess the ability to push through pain and self-imposed mental limits. To dig deeper inside themselves and discover a will to go just a little farther than they previously believed they could. To push themselves harder, farther, faster than they knew they could go. To find out what kind of grit they really possess and then use that self-discovery to push themselves even further.
Special operations selection processes should indeed include a focus on cognitive aptitude and soft skills. All of the service branch’s special operations screening and selection programs do currently dedicate some efforts to assessing and developing those skills, but to suggest that these training programs should move away from the heavy focus on physically demanding tests isn’t just misguided, it’s putting the lives of those future operators at risk.
Jonathan Cleck is a 24-year veteran of the Navy SEAL Teams, a doctoral student studying human performance capabilities, and a consultant on corporate leadership.
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