The first parts of this series outlined the realities of what it means to be Special Forces. If you haven’t read those two, I suggest that you start there first. Now that you have a better understanding of what Special Operations is all about, I want you to understand what keeps things operating smoothly once an SF Operator is fully trained and ready for business. It comes down to culture.

This word, culture, gets thrown around all the time. We’ve all heard it and we’ve all used it to describe characteristics of a country, state, province, town, workplace, or other geographic area or group of people. But what does it really mean? I believe culture to be the following:

“What people say and/or do when they think no one is watching.”

It’s that simple. Look around you at work. How do people act when they think no one important is watching? Do they act with professionalism or with disgrace? Do they clean up after themselves and leave things better than when they found them, or do they leave a mess for others to clean up? Do they badmouth their coworkers and superiors, or do they pump them up and focus their energy on how they can make the situation better?

If you’re in a military environment, do those around you follow only the bare minimum orders they were given and nothing more, or do they read between the lines and anticipate the needs of the mission so they can contribute as much as possible to the team effort? Do those around you put themselves or their mission first?

Do they own up to their own mistakes in front of the team and use the opportunity to better themselves, or do they shirk responsibility, dumping it on their subordinates or peers when given the opportunity? Do you work in a culture full of sheepdogs, or do you work in a culture full of sheep?

The Cults of Special Operations

Read Next: The Cults of Special Operations

In the SOF world, things do not work properly without the foundations of a great culture. We have seen throughout history organizations whose culture eroded or was never strong, to begin with. In the SOF world, these organizations rarely get the chance to try again. The stakes are too high and public scrutiny too intense for a do-over. Units with a strong culture rooted in principles of integrity, honesty, and a mission-first mindset are the ones that survive and thrive through wartime and peacetime.

The dynamic environment in which a SOF operator works requires them to go above and beyond on a daily basis. To do this, they need to be surrounded by men who will do the same in return. Tasks such as maritime counter-terrorism, strategic reconnaissance, direct action, unconventional warfare, defense diplomacy and military assistance, advanced insertion methods via land, sea, and air, and many others require that the team operation is greater than the sum of its parts — each individual man in that team. To do this, a culture of excellence, selflessness, perseverance, and dedication must be present.

Next time you hear “SOF culture,” do away with the visions of cool gear, Blackhawks, and bearded men, and instead ponder the deeds and mindset of those required to perform SOF missions. Think of the little tasks, choices, habits, and training that a SOF operator goes through prior to squeezing that trigger. If you aspire to be among them, embracing these ideas and this positive mindset will be as important to you as reaching an elite level of physical fitness for a competitive advantage during the competition.

In part 4/5 of this series, I will discuss one of the biggest advantages that SOF has over conventional forces, which, in part, allows them to complete the missions that no one else can.