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Secrets of Special Ops Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

Secrets of Special Ops Leadership: Dare the Impossible — Achieve the Extraordinary
William A. Cohen
AMACOM (2005)

Note: Given the recent and dramatic increase of public interest in “special ops” initiatives, I decided to re-read a book I reviewed when it was first published more than six years ago. Its author is Bill Cohen, also the author of The Art of the Strategist: 10 Essential Principles for Leading Your Company to Victory, A Class with Drucker: The Lost Lessons of the World’s Greatest Management Teacher, Drucker on Leadership: New Lessons from the Father of Modern Management, and most recently, Heroic Leadership: Leading with Integrity and Honor. You are cordially invited to check out my two interviews of Bill Cohen and reviews of several of his other books.

Cohen is certainly well-qualified to reveal and then discuss various “secrets” which he converts into “lessons” by which to guide and inform business initiatives. He understands far better than do most of his readers that many comparisons and contrasts between the military and the business world are inappropriate. For whatever reasons, however, executives constantly use military nomenclature when explaining how they plan to “attack” a market segment, introduce a category “killer” product, “blow” a competitor “out of the water,” launch a “guerilla” marketing campaign, etc. Whereas in other books which “look only at the individual commando organizations with which a particular author is familiar,” Cohen takes a comprehensive approach: “There is a commonality in how organizations are led in all successful commando units. This book synthesizes these techniques. It covers the essential methods that commando leaders in the British Special Air Service (SAS), Israeli Sayeret Mat’kal, and [U.S.] commando units employ. But it also covers techniques that have been used by commando units throughout thousands of years of history to accomplish extremely challenging tasks against vastly superior odds.” In this brief excerpt, Cohen has identified what differentiates his book from any other of which I am now aware: It examines commando units from a number of different military services in several different countries as well as other commando units pre-20th century.

With regard to the aforementioned “secrets,” there are no head-snapping revelations among them nor among the core principles which most (if not all) leaders of commando units share in common nor among the “fourteen key strategies” which Cohen analyzes in Part 2. Of greatest interest and value to me is what Cohen has to say about specific assignments or situations. For example, when Gideon led a group of 300 Hebrews to victory against a vastly superior number of well-trained, battle-experienced Midianites in a fortified encampment. That was around 1100 B.C.

Other exemplary (special) operations include those when 300 Spartans led by Leonidas held off about 225,000 Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.; when Col. James Doolittle led 16 B-25Bs during a raid on Japan in 1942; and when Brig. General Dan Shomron led the IDF rescue of 105 hostages at the Entebbe airport in 1976. I also appreciate Cohen’s inclusion of examples from the business world where, after only minor adjustment, each of the principles of special ops leadership can also be effective, especially when there seems to be no acceptable alternative to “commando” initiatives. Hence the importance of those principles to the leaders of the Manhattan Project, Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” and Xerox PARC.

Is this book about great special ops leaders and what they and their associates achieved, often against what seemed to be prohibitive odds? Or is this book about what can be learned from them that is relevant to the contemporary business world?

In a word, Yes.


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