I started watching the show “Gold Rush,” from the Discovery Network, about the guys who go into Alaska to mine for gold. Aside from making me want to go stake a claim and start mining myself, it reminded me of a very important aspect that any member of a military combat unit could be able to relate with, especially a member of SOF.
The purpose of the difficult training pipelines members of SOF go through is to separate the weak from the strong, wheat from the chaff. It’s a filtering process. Ever wonder why it seems like the cadre want people to quit? Because they do want people to quit. Once they eliminate the people who don’t really want to be there, they’re left with the final few.
But the process of filtering is not complete. At this point the more difficult and troubling task begins. For some, this is the most painful part of training. For me, it was only a real concern once during the Special Forces Qualification Course, but the Fear definitely created a home in my head.
“Don’t be that guy.” This is simultaneously a bit of advice and a strong warning. It’s a phrase that is definitely common in the military (probably somewhat common in certain civilian circles) and could be used to sum up a maxim necessary to being accepted into the upper echelon units: if you are consistently the source of grief, you don’t belong.
There is one guy in the first season of the gold mining show, Jim Dorsey, who appears to be is the embodiment of “that guy.” Sure enough, as if it was written in a script (which it certainly could have been), Mr. Dorsey and the boss get into a major clash and he eventually “takes his ball and goes home.”
Now, I understand that it is television and likely edited for drama, but I can spot “that guy” relatively quickly in a group setting. It doesn’t take long if you’re attuned to the signals and behaviors. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that it is an adaptation for a team guy to be able to identify “that guy” quickly so he can know how to not behave. Sometimes great teachers are only great because they teach you how not to act.
It’s not that he makes mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes.
It’s not that he lacks situational awareness sometimes. He lacks it at all the times when it matters most.
It’s not simply that he has a short temper and can be volatile sometimes. Every man has a limit. That guy lives outside “the limit” because his ego is so fragile that any hits can cause him to either crack or explode, neither of which is beneficial when there are live rounds involved.
Worst of all, his default response to criticism and mistakes are the Original Sin: blame.
There is nothing more destructive to team morale and cohesion than a guy who is unwilling to take responsibility for his failures. That guy starts to think everyone is conspiring against him or looking for reasons to get rid of him. Everyone on the outside looking in is thinking, or saying to themselves, “Dude, this cat is incapable of learning from his mistakes and he’s going to get me or my brothers killed.”
Over time, the conspiracy theory starts to become a reality. Guys really do start expecting or even looking for mistakes. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually, everyone starts to give that guy the silent treatment, which will lead him to travel down one of two terrible directions: more blame, or strengthening the Fear.
“The Fear” can be used to explain a variety of things, but for that guy, the Fear takes the form of believing he no longer has the respect or love from his brothers. As this fear becomes more palpable and visible in his interactions, he can become hyper worried about making more mistakes, which decays his confidence and in turn, leads to more mistakes.
It’s a vicious cycle, especially if that guy truly isn’t actually disliked by his teammates. I’ve seen it before and I’ve been in that boat. The Fear of falling out of favor among your team is always just around the corner. One moment you can be riding high, thinking you’re one of the guys. The next minute, you’re picking up the pieces after making a mistake which heralds the end of the world in your mind. To everyone else, you just fucked up again and you’re going to catch hell about it until someone else makes an even stupider mistake.
What’s the best way to avoid this crippling disease? Here are 6 tips to succeed in Special Operations to help you avoid being “that guy” and succeed in SOF:
- Always pay attention. Situational awareness can save your life and your sanity. Learn from others for both the good they do, and also their mistakes.
- Be quick to take responsibility. It’s easier to take blame than it is to get the silent treatment from your teammates for blaming them or some sinister cabal that’s been sapping your precious bodily fluids.
- Act as if you believe you’re an asset to the team, you will often behave as an asset. If you start to worry that you’re a liability, well… the same rule applies.
- Always be building rapport and making allies. This works even better if you are genuine and sincere. You never know who may come to your aid in times of trouble. But you also never know if that person you pissed off last week may just let you hang yourself because you acted like a prick.
- If you’re worried, talk to a brother. You may be pleasantly surprised by their honest assessment of your performance. Likewise, you may be disheartened by that same honesty. Regardless, your desire to see the truth in yourself tells your teammates you want to improve.
- Lastly, and probably most importantly: be quick to forgive the mistakes of others. I’m pretty sure Jesus had some good reasons for this maxim, all of which apply in this situation as well.
I suppose these tips are good in all walks of life, but definitely the case in small, tight-knit teams where internal mis-trust costs lives and death is always a small mistake away.
Now get out there and find someone to blame for your problems!
Author Blake Miles is a former Army Special Forces soldier who spent time at 1st Special Forces Group and 20th Special Forces Group.