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Monday, March 24, 2014

The Mental Performance Pipeline

The Mental Performance Pipeline- Brad Christian
It’s difficult to extract any one component or principle of Special Operations teams and apply it to success in the corporate environment.  Throughout the entire process of identifying, assessing, selecting, training and managing Special Operations personnel there is an immense amount of logic, legacy, analysis, overhead and investment in the pipeline to ensure that the product that is produced is, to put it simply, extremely capable. 

What is useful however is to analyze how individual SOF operators and teams approach professional goals and objectives.  From this analysis we can identify some mental tools that anyone can use to navigate challenges and obstacles commonly found in any corporate environment and in most organizations. 

First, here a few assumptions and personal observations from which I draw conclusions and create associated principles that are applicable in non SOF, corporate or other civilian environments. 

1)      Regardless of the specific SOF unit, (US Army Special Forces, Rangers, US Navy SEALS, Marine Special Operations, Special Mission Units and Others) there exists a highly developed program that assesses, trains and produces individuals capable of carrying out that unit’s mission in most any environment.  Additionally, the individuals that comprise these teams, on any given day, are significantly more prepared to adapt to unexpected challenges than most.  Finally, these individuals are among the most innovative and capable problem solvers, thinkers and “doers” found anywhere.


2)      Individuals and teams in the SOF world have a level of “trust among peers” that is unique, highly valued and extremely durable.  The trust I reference here results from the knowledge that your teammates at every level have been through a significant testing process, and they have passed.  They have proven that they possess “all conditions dependability”, or very close to it, and have demonstrated an above average ability to communicate, think, move, drive, shoot, fight, lead, follow, organize, you get the idea.  No matter what it is, they are pretty good at it.  They train hard, take risks, laugh at challenges and stay focused on the right objectives, most of the time.  They can be counted on to do “whatever it takes” to accomplish their mission.  They will give “100% and then some”; endure cold, heat, thirst, hunger, physical pain, uncertainty and threat of death or great bodily harm to achieve their objectives.  They all believe in their chosen profession, and take pride in knowing that their contributions often go unseen and nearly always misunderstood. 

3)      Most civilian companies that I have worked for, (and there have been a few), and most that my close friends have worked for, fail miserably where “assessing and training” their employees are concerned.  The phrase “thrown to the wolves” is the norm in most corporations.  This is true for entry level jobs, mid-level management and executive positions. 

4)      Civilian corporations want #2, but have no idea how to get it.

On any given day, someone who is a part of a team that I described in #1 possesses superior mental tools.  They are highly aware of themselves, their surroundings and their team.  They are mentally strong.  They have unbelievable focus and finally, their perspective is highly developed.  These traits are sometimes also found in other areas, specifically teams of elite outdoor guides (ex: Exum Mountain Guides) and other extreme athletes often possess very similar mental capabilities.

 These four components (awareness, strength, focus and perspective) make up what I refer to as the “mental performance pipeline” and with practice and training are available to anyone, anywhere at any time. 

1)      Awareness- SOF operators possess highly advanced personal and situational awareness.  Your awareness is tested in selection, an environment where you are constantly observed by instructors who take their jobs very seriously.  A simple mistake or oversight by a hopeful Green Beret or SEAL can result in a “no go” during any portion of the training pipeline.  After selection, new graduates enter the supercharged environment where elite teams train and prepare for daring and dangerous operations.  Training for these types of missions is in itself dangerous.  Shooting in close proximity to your friends, jumping out of planes, swimming at night with heavy gear, protecting VIP’s, driving big off road trucks through the mountains in total darkness are all dangerous activities that result in unfortunate accidents and even deaths each year.  You learn early and quickly to pay attention in training and your situational awareness is honed to a sharp edge.  Finally, living and working in high threat areas and executing combat operations puts you and your team in the sights of highly motivated and creative enemies.  On any given day, lack of awareness by a single individual can result in catastrophic failure for the entire team. 


a.       How can you develop this type of awareness?  The answer is by conducting your own personal assessment and training program. There are many great tools in the civilian world to assess your individual personality type and identify your mental strengths and weaknesses.  It’s critical to keep an open and honest approach when assessing your personality type.  Think about who you really are, not who you would like to be.  This is “Phase I”.  You need a solid foundation of awareness, and it starts with an accurate self- assessment.  During a senior year Management course at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, we devoted nearly an entire semester to studying and analyzing assessment and personality profiles tests.  I was personally able to try out many different types of personality and mental assessments tests.  There is something to learn from most of the reputable products on the market.  A classic product is the Meyers Briggs type indicator that assigns a letter code (explained by a detailed matrix) to each individual.  Many are available online and are quick and easy.  What does the SOF selection process look for?  Integrity, selflessness, team work and above average powers of deduction, to name a few. 


2)      Strength- the SOF world is filled with challenges at every turn.  Individual, team and organizational challenges exist, are often daunting and always require a positive mental attitude to ensure a successful outcome.  In this world, there are no points for second place and the phrase “pays to be a winner” is taught from the beginning.  The most important type of strength is the mental strength that mature SOF operators possess.  Overcoming challenges develops mental strength.  Long rucks, early mornings, cold, heat, night jumps and repeated deployments cause a forging of the mind and a certain type of mental toughness to occur that becomes an individual warrior’s greatest weapon.

a.       How do you develop this type of strength?  You have to challenge yourself with tough goals.  Training never ends.  Face your fears and train to improve your weaknesses.  Are you afraid of heights?  Go skydiving.  Lack confidence?  Run half a dozen obstacle course races and make yourself speak in public.  Are you physically out of shape?  Find a good local cross fit box and a community of supportive peers or better yet, check out Mountain Athlete.  Take an advanced shooting course at ACADEMI or, after you have done all of those, and think you are ready, sign up for an AOG Teton Operator Course.  The mental forging that occurs by overcoming challenges is powerful. You will be better equipped to deal with everyday problems and stressors.  Training never ends.  Whatever you choose, do a lot of it.  Repetition is key.  Change up your training, diversity is important.  Keeping setting bigger goals for yourself.  You peers will notice the difference and will see you as a leader, even though they won’t be able to exactly understand what is different about you.  Find your arena.  No excuses.


3)      Focus- Awareness and Focus often increase simultaneously.  Focus often means the difference between success and failure.  I have come to understand and teach the optimal approach to understanding focus by thinking of three different, overlapping and often competing missions that must be kept in balance.  These are your individual, team and organizational mission.  First is your individual mission.  What are your personal goals?  In combat, they are pretty straightforward.  Keep yourself and your teammates safe.  Second is your team’s mission?  What are your small unit objectives?  Again, in combat these are usually pretty clear, communicated down from a higher chain of command and normally achievable based on precedence, training and expected outcomes.  Third is your organization’s mission.  Organizational missions are strategic in nature, sometimes more difficult to understand (best case) or completely misunderstood (often) by the individuals and teams comprising the organization.  The best approach is to understand where the territorial boundaries are for each “mission circle”, when you are crossing the boundaries and especially, which circle is the most critical one to address at any time.  It’s rare that all three are in sync, but military organizations and objectives most often come closer to achieving balance between the three than most civilian organizations. 


a.       Accept the reality that in the civilian world, these three mission circles will usually be out of sync, but hopefully not all three at the same time.  Though your job will not be fun or always uplifting, keep in mind that your job is fulfilling an individual objective for your personal mission.  Whether that is providing for yourself or your family, acting as a launching pad for another opportunity or challenging you to grow as a leader, your individual mission is important in the work you do.  Your team’s mission circle, the second type, will have many ups and downs and will be among the most unstable of the three, in the civilian world.  Poor communication, lack of peer trust, high turnover, insufficient training all contribute to sometimes negative small team mission circles in many corporate environments.  (All the more important to have certainty in your personal mission circle).  In the modern economic environment most companies are dealing with more uncertainty than ever before.  Don’t expect that your organization will always be able to communicate the master mission statement, or describe the path to success for your company to accomplish its mission.   Accept it.  Strive to lead by example and develop your version of a roadmap to organizational success.  If your chain of command fails to give you the proper training, guidance or support, then prove you are capable of succeeding in any environment, use “SOF Focus” to lead yourself and your team through the chaos.  You can always find one thing to do, one task, one objective that your boss, or your boss’s boss will approve of.  There are no excuses. You must find or create a way to help your organization achieve its mission.  Will you always, or ever, be recognized?  No.  Will your peers, family or friends understand how your sacrifices or creativity contributed?  Hardly ever?  But drive on.  You know the reasons why.


4)      Perspective- More than anything else, keeping perspective will help you stay emotionally balanced and healthy.  Your awareness means that you are thinking ahead and setting yourself up for success.  Your strength means that you will endure the hard times with greater resiliency than your peers.  You’ll be seen as a leader, and relied on during periods of chaos or uncertainty.  Your focus will ensure that you achieve the right goals, keeping the three mission circles in balance, and courageously forging a path ahead when others are wandering aimlessly. 

Brad Christian is the founder of Adventure Operations Group, a company dedicated to improving individual and team performance.  Brad and the entire AOG team draw upon diverse backgrounds and benefit from a balance of critical operational and corporate leadership experience.  The AOG team creates custom individual courses, specialized team assessment programs and epic guided experiences designed to develop a “Beyond Normal Limits” mindset.    Contact AOG today for a confidential consultation or visit our website to learn more about our custom corporate consulting services.