The Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) was in a bit of a crisis mode back in 2011. Candidates were failing at about a 50 percent rate which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but the reasons why they were failing was a big concern with the powers in the Special Warfare Center (SWC). The issue was the Special Forces Selection and Assessment Course (SFAS) wasn’t identifying nor culling candidates that weren’t properly prepared to pass SFQC.

There was a disconnect inside SFAS, which hadn’t really changed since its inception in 1988. The John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center Commander (JFKSWC) Gen. Ben Sacolick approached the SWC Training Group about the issue. The SWC Group Commander Col. Ashton Naylor knew exactly who to task to identify and fix the problem. He picked Major Brian Decker, “the smartest guy I knew in Training Group,” Naylor said.

I’ve known Naylor for 25 years and he’s not one to heap praise on those who are undeserving. I first met Naylor when he was a candidate at Selection and Assessment and later went through the Special Forces Officers Course with him. I knew him as an outstanding Detachment Commander of an SF A-team in the 7th Special Forces Group. He later commanded a battalion of the 5th Special Forces Group in Afghanistan and then risen to command the SWC’s Training Group.

With SFAS selecting at about a 50 percent rate at that time, the same percentage of candidates failing the SFQC was unacceptable. Decker was told, to fix it, in the SF way,… just get it done. And did he ever. He made sweeping changes to the way the SFAS course was run and while the selection rates of SFAS plummeted to 30 percent or below, the successful completion of the SFQC from candidates selected from Decker’s SFAS classes skyrocketed to 80 percent. That’s exactly what the command was looking for.

How did he do it? Did he just use smoke and mirrors? Nope.

He showed the confidence of Sacolick and Naylor had in him was justified. He quickly learned that one of the best attributes of a successful SF operator, the ability to think quickly and clearly while the stress level is pegged out to the max was missing in the course failures. Worse, many showed that they were incapable of functioning on a small team and not completely devoted to the teamwork necessary on an A-Team.

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Every candidate wants to graduate the course, Decker set out to find out who wanted to walk the walk and live the life of an outstanding SF operator. The internal drive, the will to succeed is either there or it isn’t. But how to identify it?

He put together an information-driven program where he identified 1200 data points on each candidate. He could identify a successful SF operator as a guy in his early 30s, with a high I.Q., who came from suburbia. But the one factor that stood out was, each successful candidate responded to stress in their lives with a heightened sense of motivation.

So, who IS Brian Decker? How did he make the changes that made SFAS a much better indicator of success than the one that hadn’t changed in over 20 years? Having been a cadre member of SFAS, I was intrigued…no fascinated by what I’ve read. The SWC and school would frequently have high-level visitors and it wasn’t long before people from all walks of life wanted to talk to Decker. Would his system of identifying successful traits in SF operators work in the corporate world?

The NFL came calling, first the Cleveland Browns and then the Indianapolis Colts who hired him to identify what will make a successful NFL player. But more to that later. I reached out to Naylor and asked him about Decker. “You need to talk to Brian,” he said. “I guarantee that you’ll come away very impressed.” He put us in touch with each other and being a busy man with the NFL offseason workouts in full swing, he arranged a time to talk in the evening.

After quick introductions, I could tell right away that Naylor’s comment about Decker being an extremely smart man was dead on. But I’ve been around smart people before and many spend all their time trying to impress upon you how smart they are. Decker wasn’t like this at all. He was talking about these sweeping changes of his as if he were talking about carrying the groceries into the house. Which made it even more intriguing.

So, here’s part one of the interview I did with Decker as we discussed SFAS, the Q-Course (SFQC), and problems facing the SF guys in combat. Later we just touched on his new career in the NFL and the ground he’s breaking there, but that is mostly proprietary information, and we were there to talk SF.

Spec Ops: We’ll not waste any time here. So how did these changes come about?

Decker: I met with Gen. Sacolick and he said, “we have to restore the image of Selection in the Regiment.” We had only around 50 percent of the soldiers being selected at SFAS completing the qualification course. He told me to spend some time and figure it out.

I had just finished the Naval Postgraduate School and wanted to use that education so I immediately went looking for the data. And what I tried to do was tie that data to outcomes. Passes and fails and find out where we weren’t doing well.

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I met a Ph.D. student from UNC whose husband is a Green Beret, she was in the Air Force and I asked that if we took all of the data that we had, how well would we be doing, what would our batting average be?

The organizational efficiency could be maxed out at about 58 percent, so that told me that the answers were probably not quantitative and were probably more qualitative.

Spec Ops: And how did this information get analyzed?

Decker: I took the information from 500-600 course failures, and the data that the school gives about that student gives a short narrative as to the reasons why. We then turned that into a language, passes and fails into something that we can select for. What we really found out was that the failures were really more social in nature.

So, we went back to the leadership assessment during Selection and Assessment and a candidate was getting one patrol during team phase as a patrol leader or as an assistant patrol leader for one of the four days.

As you remember being a cadre member there, those events were taken straight out of the British SAS Selection. We’re going to give them a really difficult task to do and we’re going to punish them for several hours and see how well they can function in a very demanding environment. But demanding in only a very narrow sense. But based upon that one grade, we had to make a determination on whether you were a select in the course. And I saw tons of flaws with that. First, we were basing the entire selection criteria off of the one report of one SFAS Cadre member. On one day, in one event.

I looked at those leadership evals and found that they were negatively correlated to success later in the qualification course.

Creating an evaluation using a “Leaderless Group”:

Spec Ops: So that was a big indicator right there?

Decker: Well we looked at that and said, ‘What is the nature of Special Operations?’ It is complex, it is dynamic. And the biggest thing is we don’t lead from what I tell you to do. We lead from within. We went to what I called a “leaderless group” so the leaderless is a misnomer what we did was, we stopped grading a candidate on the patrols and began grading on attributes.

(Editor’s note: the attributes he mentioned above was a three-year data collection program that Gen. Sacolick implemented at the SWC to identify what were the core attributes that were needed for a successful Special Operations soldier)

So, in the leaderless environment, instead of getting graded on one day during team events, you were getting graded all four days. How it worked is, you’d go to the group and drop this problem in the middle of it and you watch and evaluate on how they self-organize around the task and requirement.

Within five or ten minutes you can tell who the leaders are. And you can tell within those first few minutes based on ability who are going to struggle and the rest of the time you are going to figure out where these other guys in the middle, fit in.

So, now you’ll get four cadre evaluations, peer evaluations and then the candidates grade themselves during this time and everyone gets the same evaluations and you can put together a good 360-degree assessment.

Spec Ops: Those are some interesting changes, so how does that change in the evaluation process?

Decker: Well, we looked at it like, in Week 1 we adjusted the levels where the data was predictive, right? We screened out those who were not smart enough, who weren’t fit enough and weren’t prepared and knocked those out.

In Week 2, we evaluated the candidates’ performance on the Star Exam, (Land Navigation) where the intelligence and physical fitness are highly correlated. Week 2 is more of a practical application of your abilities and we’d screen those out and then the selection decision comes down to Week 3 in Team week.

 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.

What we’re looking for is a candidate that isn’t looking for external solutions, you look internally and you look to the group for solutions. And it was at this point that we moved away from the two-event day (during Team Week). Because the solution to any problem in Selection is stability. Because during those events, all you are doing is measuring a candidate’s ability to persevere.

So, we would have days where we’d have 10 events. It may not look like 10 events but you remember the tires and poles right?

Spec Ops: Oh yeah, that was always a tough event.

Decker: What we’d do is, they’d start out where all they have is poles and lashings. And after carrying that for 5ks and after that, we may add three logs and you go another 3-4Ks and then you get tires. So every time you give them something, it forces them to reassess the problem, reorganize and solve it.

We do what we’d call progressive builds and we’d stop them at times during the event and break them into small groups to do construction exercises where they do different things to break them into small groups. And all that while giving that soldier an opportunity.

What we found, with that data-rich environment is that our Selection rate went way down. We went from a little over 50 percent when I got there to ….where we were trending, when I left to just under 30 percent.

But on the inverse side, the selects that we were pushing through at Selection were on track to graduate at about an 80 percent rate in the qualification course when I was leaving.
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Tomorrow we’ll continue our interview with Decker and discuss further changes that the Selection and Assessment Course brought and what other attributes the cadre looks for in the successful Special Forces candidate.

Any questions or comments can be emailed to me [email protected] or at my Twitter account @SteveB7SFG

Photo courtesy of ESPN