Unity #4: Selection Procedures

Sebastian Marshall
Feb 24, 2018 · 29 min read

LET’S SEE WHO IS LAUGHING IN TWO WEEKS

“… we halted along the edge of what looked like a drop zone. “Holland DZ,” I heard some of the Fort Bragg troops say as we dismounted.

Sergeant Major Shumate was standing nearby wearing khaki pants, a Hawaiian shirt, and a Panama hat. “Fall in on me, ladies!” he called. “Make it six ranks, I want a tight formation.”

As we were forming up, somebody walked up with a camera and tripod and prepared to take a photograph of the formation.

“What the hell’s this about, Walt?” an anonymous voice squawked from somewhere in the crowd.

“This is going to be the ‘before picture’ of this group, my young darlings, and we’ll take a second shot in a few weeks,” Shumate replied.

I was aghast that someone had called a sergeant major by his first name, but Shumate seemed to take no offense. But when a small cluster of men started laughing and yahooing from within the group, like this was some sort of joke, Shumate became steely. The jocularity in his voice came to a screeching halt and he growled in a volcanic voice, “Yeah, well, let’s see who’s laughing when you motherf — -ers are finished, and the next picture I take is about half the size of this front rank standing here. The serious ones will be in that photo and the rest of you s — -birds will be back home, lying to your teammates about why you didn’t make it. So since you loudmouths — a bunch more of you besides — won’t be here for the ‘after photo,’ I’ll just have my laugh at you d — -heads right now — ha-f — -ing-ha!”

It was a sober group he addressed now as he called us to attention. The photographer took the shot and departed.”

— Command Sergeant Major Eric L. Haney, Inside Delta Force, 2002

***

WELL, IT’S GOT TO BE CLOSE…

“[After the first round of basic physical fitness tests were complete], we arrived back at camp and checked the board.

Lunch: C Ration
Supper: 1700
Formation: 1830
Uniform: Fatigues with soft cap, rucksack weighing 40 lbs [18 kg], two canteens of water

A set of scales hung from the chin-up bar in front of the mess hall.

[…]

My rucksack registered forty-two pounds when I hung it on the scales just before supper. I took it back to the hooch and added what seemed about three pounds, then fastened two canteens of water to the lower sides of the ruck. I wanted to be able to get at them without taking my rucksack off. And I wanted my load to weigh just a bit more than prescribed, just in case these scales were a little off.

[…]

When I was about seven miles into the march, I saw a cluster of lights up ahead on the side of the road with shadowy figures moving around within. As I got closer, I saw several trucks circled around a group of trees with their lights illuminating some kind of activity.

As I approached, a cadre member beckoned me over. I gave him my color and number and he told me to drop my rucksack under any one of a set of scales that were dangling from a pole tied between two trees, and to fill my canteens from the water cans on the back of one of the trucks. I dropped my rucksack, grabbed my canteens, and drained one straight down as I walked over to find the water cans. Without my rucksack I felt light enough to fly. But that would change in a few more hours. I watched the activity in the circle of light as I took another drink and filled my canteens.

When I walked back over to the scales, I saw an interesting exchange between one of the walkers and a man who seemed to be the cadre member in charge of the site.

The cadre was saying, “Sarge, your rucksack is light. It doesn’t meet the forty-pound requirement.”

Before he could continue, the walker interrupted, saying, “Well, it’s got to be close. How much does it weigh?”

“I really can’t tell you,” the cadre member replied in a monotone. “If you look at the scales, you’ll see they don’t register anything less than forty pounds. So as far as we’re concerned your rucksack weighs nothing.”

I looked at the set of scales above my rucksack, and he was correct. The face was painted a solid white until it reached the forty-pound mark.

The cadre continued. “And since you’re carrying nothing, the only way you can meet the weight requirement is to take this.” He reached behind him and handed the guy a big, ragged piece of concrete that looked like it came from a roadbed that had been dug up. “I weighed this myself,” he went on, “and certify it as weighing exactly forty pounds. Now, for you to continue this march, you will sign for this item, strap it to your rucksack, and turn it in at the finish point when you complete your march. Any questions?”

The walker stood there holding the chunk of concrete against his chest while a half smirk, half-incredulous look materialized on his face. I recognized him as one of the loudmouths who had been ready with a comment all day, but he was quiet now.

He looked up at the cadre in front of him and asked in a pleading voice, “Marvin, are you serious?”

So they knew each other. This was getting better.

“Completely” was the reply.

The guy thought a few more seconds and then said, “No, I can’t do that.” Dropping the concrete, he stood with his arms hanging down by his side.

“Are you voluntarily withdrawing from the course?”

A pause. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Take your ruck and get on the back of the truck.” The cadre chief indicated a vehicle off to the side of the rest.

The guy stood there a beat or two longer, looking like he couldn’t believe what had happened. Our eyes met, and he gave a slight shrug of acceptance, then picked up his rucksack and moved away. That little exchange sure got my attention — and the attention of everyone else who witnessed it.

I grabbed my rucksack and asked the cadre who had weighed it. “Good to go?” as I put my arms through the straps.

“Yep, you can roll,” he said as he scribbled something on a clipboard. Then he looked up and said to me as I got the rucksack settled on my back, “Have a good ‘un.”

***

TSR’S SERIES ON UNITY, ISSUE #4: SELECTION PROCEDURES

If you investigate truly elite teams, there seems to be only two ways they get formed.

The first is when everyone on the team has known each other for a long time, all know each other as highly capable, and have had past success working together at high levels with lots of mutual admiration.

If the initial members of a team all have an incredibly high degree of competence and mutual trust, that can form an elite core and culture that the rest of an organization is built around. New members of the team, if added gradually, are checked to see if they fit the standards of the team and pick up the habits and behaviors of the core group.

This can work well for small teams that grow slowly.

But oftentimes, big opportunities and big challenges require growing a team rapidly — adding multiple people that you haven’t had the luxury of knowing and working closely with for years.

This brings us to the second way that elite teams are formed — through exceptionally-carefully developed Selection Procedures.

***

BACKGROUND TO DELTA FORCE

In February 1972, the United States and People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations and President Richard Nixon visited the PRC for 7 days.

Representatives of both countries had immediate reasons they wanted to do it. The United States had been bogged down in the Vietnam War since 1964 and all attempts at peace negotiations were stalled. The North Vietnamese forces regularly received resupply and support from both China and Russia.

Meanwhile, relations between Soviet Russia and China were worsening in what’s now called “the Sino-Soviet split.” There had been a constant buildup of both Russian and Chinese troops on their mutual border. If war broke out, the Soviet Union had more materials and resources than China at this point, and they were looking for at least neutrality if not friendship from the West. Really, one of the more important but less-known things from last century was how close the Russians and Chinese came to war with each other.

As the United States came to establish a working relationship with China, it put pressure on the Vietnamese — if China ceased backing them and refused to allow the Russians to re-supply them overland through China, it’s likely North Vietnam would have fallen.

This led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, ending the war — seemingly — with a full cease-fire and re-establishment of the border similar to how North Korea and South Korea were split. American troops were pulled out of Vietnam in 1973 with a promise to re-supply and provide support if North Vietnam violated the treaty. Seemingly, peace had come.

Then Nixon was impeached.

Impeachment proceedings started in early 1974, and Nixon resigned on 9 August 1974.

North Vietnam renewed hostilities.

South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu called for aid, but the 93rd United States Congress did not make good on former American promises.

In a television and radio address as North Vietnam overran South Vietnam, President Thieu resigned and placed much of the blame on the United States

“At the time of the peace agreement the United States agreed to replace equipment on a one-by-one basis. But the United States did not keep its word. Is an American’s word reliable these days? The United States did not keep its promise to help us fight for freedom and it was the same fight that the United States lost 50,000 of its young men.”

This seems to be to be more-or-less correct. And the rest of the world took notice — terrorist attacks and airline hijackings had become increasingly common in the 1970s, and United States forces seemed increasingly unable to respond effectively to them.

In 1977, to combat the increasing rise in terrorism, the elite United States Army unit Delta Force was formed. Their missions would require the highest degree of skill in the most dangerous situations — missions like hostage rescue in the close quarters of a hijacked airliner.

In the abstract, most people enjoy prestige and like doing prestigious things. When discreet inquiries went out to distinguished U.S. Army soldiers that a new elite unit was being formed, there was a lot of interest in joining.

On paper, there were many good candidates to join. But the smallest mistake or negligence from a team member could lead to getting his teammates or hostages killed.

How, then, would the commanders and leaders of Delta Force ensure they got soldiers that could actually perform to the highest standard, in the most dangerous and stressful conditions?

***

SELECTION PROCEDURES

The quality and competence of a rapidly-growing organization’s personnel is in large part determined by the design of their Selection Procedures.

Who gets to join the team?

How do we choose those people?

After determining what roles and what level of skill, performance, and attitude are required for team members, how do we determine if a candidate can meet that standard?

Right away, we should think about two things — the false positive rate and the false negative rate.

A “false positive” is when you select someone to join a team who, it turns out, is not qualified and can’t perform at the needed standard.

A “false negative” is when you filter out someone who could have performed effectively on the team.

All organizations — consciously or not — navigate these two factors. When your Selection Procedures result in getting “false positive” candidates, you have people join the team who aren’t qualified and can’t perform. But if your Selection Procedures are too strict, arbitrary, or poorly designed, you lose good candidates to “false negatives” in selection.

Some organizations think about this explicitly. Almost all organizations are at least implicitly aware of it.

As a simple example, if you were hiring for a role and decided that “five years of experience are required,” then you’ll false-negative out potentially competent candidates who don’t have five years of experience.

Should you weight towards ensuring you don’t get false positives, or ensuring you don’t lose good people to false negatives? This depends on what type of organization you’re building, how many potential candidates there are, how attractive your organization is to work for, and how much damage — if any — is taken when you select someone that can’t perform.

In the case of Delta Force, the unit commanders and leaders put a fanatical emphasis on eliminating false positives — they wanted absolutely no one to join the unit who wouldn’t be able to perform.

This isn’t always correct and sometimes it isn’t even viable for a given organization.

I repeat, this isn’t always the right way to do things.

But in cases where it is viable, it results in elite teams with a very high degree of unity.

***

THE SELECTION PROCEDURES FOR DELTA FORCE

I think the first chapter of Inside Delta Force by Command Sergeant Major Eric L. Haney is required reading for all leaders who will be involved in choosing and vetting personnel for an organization.

The whole book is excellent and there’s many gems in it, but the first chapter takes a really in-depth look at Delta Force’s selection procedures. After reading it, you realize just how much work goes into ensuring an entire team is elite, and you learn just how much humans are capable of — every time I re-read that first chapter, I realize just how much more is possible of myself and other people.

Sketching broadly, here is how the Delta Force selection process went —

1. Candidates invited to try out for the unit were hand-selected.

2. The environment was immediately much more informal, ambiguous, and confusing than normal Army life.

3. There was a very basic test of physical fitness.

4. There was an initial 18-mile night march with 40+ lbs of grear.

5. There was a week of a mountain orienteering phase where candidates would return to the base each night and sleep at the base.

6. There was a “Stress Phase” where candidates were now more closely timed and scored on their mountain orienteering which was more intense, and candidates camped in the wild during this phase.

7. Stress Phase ended with a 40-mile night march.

8. An interview with a unit psychologist.

9. A final selection board with the unit leaders and commanders to determine who would be selected into the unit.

All the while, the cadre members running selection would constantly encourage men to quit if they were having a bad time. There was a very high degree of ambiguity and uncertainty around the whole exercises, and candidates were intentionally given mentally stressful, physically taxing, and tactically challenging exercises to complete.

The first round of Delta Force selection started with 163 men.

Going into stress phase, there were 30 men left. 18.4% of candidates made it to stress phase.

Of the 30 who went into stress phase, only 18 made it through. 11%.

After the final selection board, 12 men made it into the unit — out of the original 163 candidates. A 7.4% selection rate.

There’s much to learn from this.

***

PRELIMINARIES

Some 30 years after the initial course was run, Sergeant Haney wrote up the experience in Inside Delta Force. Again, I recommend reading at least the first chapter of the book as soon as you can — we’ll only take a few broad sketches from it.

“The prerequisites to try out were:

Minimum age of twenty-two. Minimum time in service of four years and two months. Minimum rank of staff sergeant. Pass a 100-meter swim test while wearing boots and fatigues, and pass the Ranger/Special Forces PT test. Have a minimum score of 110 on the Army general aptitude test, no court-martial convictions, and no record of recurring disciplinary problems.

About the only other thing [Sergeant Major] Grimes told me was that if I was accepted, I could expect hard work, plenty of danger, and no recognition.”

Upon arrival, things were confusing and disorganized by regular Army standards.

Haney wrote,

“… I went out to find the sergeant major. […] “Hey, Bud, do you know where I can find Sergeant Major Shumate?”

“Yeah, that’s him over by the deuce-and-a-half.” He pointed to a man with his shirt open and his hat on the back of his head, standing next to an Army two-and-one-half-ton truck.

“Okay, if you say so.” I started over to see this alleged “sergeant major.”

Sergeants Major are the walking, breathing embodiment of Everything That’s Right in the U.S. Army. This guy looked like Joe S — — the RagMan. His shirt was wide open and he wore no T-shirt. His dog tags were gold-plated. His hat was tipped up on the back of his head, and he wore a huge, elaborately curled and waxed handlebar mustache.

There was tricky of some kind here. The only thing I expected on this trip was the unexpected. So if this was a game, I figured I’d play along and see what happened.

I stepped three paces in front of the man, slammed to a halt, and from the rigid position of parade rest barked, “Sergeant Major, I was told to see you and draw some equipment!”

He eyed me for a second or so as the wrinkles of a grin crawled from beneath his mustache to settle around his eyes.

“God damn, Ranger, relax a little bit, will you. This ain’t no promotion board. You keep that s — — up, you’re gonna wear me out.” His voice was rumbling and rich with a tinge of the hills deep within.

It was a force of habit. In the Rangers, when you addressed a more senior NCO, you stood at parade rest. I relaxed slightly to the position of “at ease.”

“That’s a little better,” he said. His grin widened. He didn’t seem to be making fun of me, just surprised at being addressed in such a formal manner.

“Go over to the supply shack, get yourself a bag of junk, and sign your name on the roster at the door. Don’t worry about getting it too clean you turn it in. Everybody knows my standards ain’t very high.”

Christ almighty. This was shaping up to be a strange place. I hustled to the supply shack, signed for a bag of equipment, and talked to the guy on duty while I checked the contents of the bag against the equipment list.

“Is that guy up there really a sergeant major?”

“Shumate? Yeah, he really is. He’s the sergeant major in charge of Selection.”

“Well, he’s certainly different from any sergeant major I’ve met before.”

“He’s different from any human being you’ve ever met before.”

Now, note well — everything they did for Delta Force was highly deliberate. What would be the advantage of having the Sergeant Major in charge of selection dress in such a gaudy and un-military manner, to tell incoming candidates to relax and cease normal military discipline, and say his standards aren’t high? Think on it — there’s a lesson here we’ll come back to.

Early on, the first two sets of tests happened — there was a general physical fitness test (pushups, situps, short run, swim wearing uniform and boots, etc). Some candidates failed the physical fitness test and were out right away.

Then there was the first night march — seven miles into it is where one of our opening vignettes came from:

“The cadre was saying, “Sarge, your rucksack is light. It doesn’t meet the forty-pound requirement.”

Before he could continue, the walker interrupted, saying, “Well, it’s got to be close. How much does it weigh?”

“I really can’t tell you,” the cadre member replied in a monotone. “If you look at the scales, you’ll see they don’t register anything less than forty pounds. So as far as we’re concerned your rucksack weighs nothing.”

I looked at the set of scales above my rucksack, and he was correct. The face was painted a solid white until it reached the forty-pound mark.

The cadre continued. “And since you’re carrying nothing, the only way you can meet the weight requirement is to take this.” He reached behind him and handed the guy a big, ragged piece of concrete that looked like it came from a roadbed that had been dug up. “I weighed this myself,” he went on, “and certify it as weighing exactly forty pounds. Now, for you to continue this march, you will sign for this item, strap it to your rucksack, and turn it in at the finish point when you complete your march. Any questions?”

The man quit.

Again, everything is being done deliberately to look for certain attitudes, skillsets, and ways of operating.

***

ORIENTEERING AND STRESS PHASE

After the first initial cuts,

“… a new man appeared and took charge of the formation. He identified himself as Major Odessa, the commander of the Selection Detachment. He was medium-sized with sandy hair and a close-cropped mustache. His skin was the color of light rust. He had the unassuming appearance of a man who would not be singled out in a crowd. But there was an inner power to him that could be felt from a distance and could be seen in his eyes.

“Now that the preliminaries are out of the way and some of the less-determined individuals have departed for home, we can get down to business,” he announced.

“For the next several weeks you will undergo the Selection process for acceptance into the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. […]

“This is not a training course. It is a Selection course. Those who are accepted will be trained once they are assigned to the unit.

“Now, some ground rules. They are simple and few. Everything you see, hear, and do during this course is classified. You will keep it to yourself. Everything you will do is an individual effort. This means you will assist no other Selection candidate and you will accept assistance from no one whatsoever.

“You are all seasoned soldiers, and experienced NCOs, and officers. So we know that each of you can operate as a member, and as a leader, of a team. We want to know how you operate as an individual. The vehicle we will use to assess that is cross-country navigation, or, as the civilians call it, orienteering.

“Each day you will receive the instructions necessary to get you started and as you go along, you will receive the instructions you need for the next event. Much as you have received to this point.

“You will carry a prescribed load between designated rendezvous points, or, as we call them, ‘RVs.’ Upon arrival at a new point you will receive new instructions from the cadre member manning that point. You will have finished the day when a cadre member tells you to take off your rucksack and sit down.”

We were riveted to the sound and meaning of his voice. No one moved a muscle as he spoke.

“You will be operating against an unannounced time standard. However, at the start of every day you will be given an ‘Overdue Time.’ If you are not at an RV point at that time, you will move to the nearest road and sit down where you can be seen. The cadre will begin looking for you at the Overdue Time. […]

“As you move from RV to RV, you will stay off all roads and trails. We define a road or trail as one currently capable of jeep traffic. If you find your route is running parallel to a road or trail, you will stay at least fifteen meters away. You may walk on a road or trail for the fifteen meters approaching or departing an RV. […]

If for any reason, at any time, you no longer desire to continue with the Selection course, tell any cadre member, ‘I wish to voluntarily withdraw from the course.’ No one will question your decision; you will be immediately withdrawn and returned to your parent unit.

“No course reports will be filed on you and sent back to your parent unit. Neither you nor we will talk about anything that takes place during this course. Is there anything I’ve said to this point that’s unclear?” […]

“Do your utmost at all times, and you may find that to be sufficient.”

Of course, this all makes perfect sense in retrospect, but it’s important to stop and reflect on how unusual this must have all seemed for the candidates in selection. The Army normally attempts to run every aspect of its operations like clockwork, with very clearly defined expectations.

Delta Force Selection ran… very differently from that. There was an odd mix of ambiguity, intensity, and informality. Haney —

“Everything happened when it was supposed to. If the bulletin board announced truck departure at 0600 hours, they rolled at 0600. If someone missed the truck, he was never seen or spoken of again. The steady disappearance of men was downright eerie, made noticeable only by the diminished size of the crowd each night in the mess hall. No one saw them leave, no one heard them leave, they were just… gone.”

***

HANEY’S ATTITUDE

Before we get into some generalized lessons for Unity, we’d do well and stop and look at some of what Haney was going through — and how he dealt with it.

Though it’s beyond the scope of this series, there’s also plenty of lessons about persistence and endurance available here. We’re only quoting brief excerpts from the book; again, I recommend reading at least Chapter 1 of Inside Delta Force for its many gems.

Here’s one excerpt of Haney dealing with the pressure —

“The following morning at 0600 hours, the trucks rolled as promised. I was glad to get moving out of the first RV. My legs were a little stiff and my uniform was still damp and cold, but both discomforts would rapidly go away.

What a day. I was moving right at the ragged edge of my capability. Every route to every RV was a struggle. The drift of the land was contrary to every one of my routes. I was never able to use a valley or a ridge to advantage. Every slope was rocky, rugged, and covered with deadfall. The low ground was worse — a tangle of wait-a-minute vines and briars. Whoever had laid out today’s course had done so with studied devilment in mind. It was impossible to maintain a good time, and I was worried about being too slow.

I was bashing along a wide, relatively flat spot on the side of a slope when I came across an old abandoned farmstead. The place was overgrown with brush and blackberry briars, but right the middle of what had been the front yard, I found a bush full of ripe Tommy Toe tomatoes. The Tommy Toe is a perennial plant, and that bush had been dropping fruit here for no telling how many years.

I stopped for the few seconds it took to fill the cargo pockets of my fatigue pants and took off again, popping those sweet and juicy little tomatoes in my mouth one right after the other. What an unexpected and uplifting treat. Even now, writing this more than two decades later, I can see that place clearly and taste those delicious little tomatoes.”

What can we learn from this? A lot, perhaps — Haney repeatedly quickly notes problems, and then just as quickly dismisses problems outside his control. His legs are stiff and uniform still damp from washing the night before? It’ll pass… and then it’s forgotten. Need to make good time? That’s within one’s control; keep it in mind.

But then… something you get if you read Haney’s memoir, is just how often he savored small details. The tomatoes. “What an unexpected and uplifting treat.” You see him managing his thoughts, morale, and mood throughout the intensity of Delta Force Selection. There’s lessons here.

One more —

“I didn’t know it when I set out that morning, but I was going to become intimately familiar with the relief and topography of Gold Mine Mountain. The day would become known as the “Day of the Star,” because when draw on a map, the routes resembled a six-pointed star.

All day long, I crossed that damned mountain from one side to the other. On the map the mountain looked like a big, dead, contorted octopus. The main body was lumpy and irregular; the top writhed snakelike in a series of sharp-crested saddles. The fingers and ridges running off the sides of the crest were gnarled and twisted like the arthritic hands of an old man.

I would arrive exhausted and breathless at one RV only to be sent to the next RV back on the side I just came from. The mountain was too big to contour around, and the lay of the ground was such that I could never make anything approximating a direct approach, or maintain the hard-earned high ground for any length of time. Never getting anywhere, back and forth across the same mountain. It was a masterful torture. But then I had a revelation:

What difference could it possibly make if I crossed back and forth over this same mountain until doomsday?

A mountain was a mountain, time was time, and route selection was route selection. The only thing that mattered was speed and ground made good. My destination was determined by time; the physical position of that ultimate destination was only incidental to my reason for being here. The frustration and mental torture I had been suffering were completely of my own making — and completely within my power to disregard.

I dropped all thoughts of anything other than making the best possible approach to the next RV, and it was amazing how much mentally and physically stronger I felt.

From then on it was just a hard day in the mountains. And as happens with all days, no matter how difficult, this one, too, came to a close.”

***

WHAT THEY WERE LOOKING FOR

The book never beats you over the head with the attributes they were selecting for in Delta Force — you have to think about it and meditate on it on your own.

Clearly, though, some things stand out.

Competence: As we discussed in Unity #2: Unit Cohesion, you can’t reach trust and unity without fundamental competence. The most obvious thing that the Delta Force Selection Course tested was competence. There was meeting the physical fitness standards, engaging in basic planning and movement, and balancing the need to make good time with the need to keep oneself healthy and avoid injury from moving too recklessly. Obviously, the course tested competence throughout.

Persistence: Obviously too, the course tested persistence. It’s one thing to be able to hype oneself up for a day or two. Under intense pressure over multiple weeks, every candidate had multiple instances were they’d want to quit — Haney had many moments like that. In those times, did you quit or keep going?

Self-Motivating: It might not be obvious from a quick read, but if you think carefully on Delta Force selection, the instructors did everything possible to remove external motivational pressure. Candidates were told in early phases explicitly that if they quit, it would not be reported back to their unit. In later stages, they were told they’d receive a formal commendation letter as being excellent soldiers even if they didn’t get through the entire process and be selected. Any pressure to succeed due to external factors was suppressed as much as possible — the instructors didn’t encourage or cajole; just the opposite, the politely encouraged you to quit if you wanted to quit. This tested the ability of candidates to keep motivating themselves, hard day after hard day. One imagines that all of the soldiers who made it through had the same ability to self-motivate like Haney — to dismiss unpleasant thoughts, and to focus on small victories and savoring small moments, to refuel one’s morale and keep one’s motivation high.

Self-Management: Rucksack under 40 pounds? Here’s a block of concrete. Miss the truck? You’re gone. There were simple instructions to follow, but no nannying at all. If you couldn’t manage yourself, your schedule, your gear, and your mission — you were out.

Prioritization: A fundamental skill that’s surprisingly lacking in the world. A great many breakdowns and failures happen because of individual and group inability to prioritize effectively. The formal time standards for making selection were never announced, so individual candidates had to balance going as fast as they could with not getting injured or breaking down. This mimics real-world conditions: oftentimes, the finish line is ambiguous or unknown when starting. You have to do as well as you can on an individual day without sacrificing future days. Delta Force Selection tested heavily for this.

Dealing With Luck: Every single candidate experienced bad luck on the journey. Haney almost lost two teeth when he had a bad accident climbing a fence and having his rifle slip from position and crack his mouth. At one point on the hardest part of the 40-miler journey, he went the wrong way and turned it into a 55 mile march. Many people quit when bad luck hit them — the soldier who refused to take the 40-pound block of concrete for the last 11 miles of the first night march both had poor self-management, true, but everyone made mistakes. Throughout the course, something went wrong for just about everyone… Haney didn’t quit in the instances bad luck hit him.

These are all difficult factors to assess, but Delta Force did a remarkable job of assessing them. Certainly, we can learn from this.

***

SELECTION PROCEDURES GUIDANCE: RAW NUMBERS

It’s highly unlikely that most of us will ever be engaged in such life-and-death, high-stakes stuff as building an elite counterterrorist military unit.

But there was some universal principles for selection procedures.

The first is incredibly obvious when written down, but almost always neglected in the real world —

Have a large pool for selection and take the best.

I personally learned this from my friend Greg Nance, the founder and CEO of Dyad. For the last three years, I ran a rather intense summer entrepreneurship program at the University of Chicago’s entrepreneurship center.

I knew I wanted excellent people that could handle adversity — it was 10 hours per day for more than two weeks straight, lots of learning, lots of action. Lots of failure and setbacks. No one coming in had all the skills they needed, and would have to endure and persist through a lot to master skills and complete the objectives.

I asked a number of friends and mentors about getting the best possible people onboard. When I spoke about it with Nance, he told me I needed to get around 5x to 10x more people applying than I thought I did.

What he said to me always stuck with me afterwards —

“Marshall, think about it. If you have 50 people apply and take 10, you’ve got the top 20%. If you have 100 people apply and take 10, you have the top 10%. If you have 500 people apply and take 10, then you’ve got the top 2%.”

It’s always a tremendous challenge getting vastly more qualified applicants than one needs for a role, since it means spending a lot of time generating applications and then even more time filtering, interviewing, and doing initial selection.

But the more I talked with veteran CEOs and leaders of highly successful organizations, the more I realize this was common. Zach Obront, whose exceptional culture document we explored in Background Ops #7: Universal Principles, often looks for 300+ qualified applicants to hire one person.

Obront and I have referred multiple people to each other and reviewed how it went. Typically at the end of Obront’s hiring process, he’ll have 3 exceptional people who would do really well on the job — genuinely the top 1% of applicants. One of those would be selected and come on to the team, the other two would often be told they were exceptional and invited to re-apply as future jobs came open.

Admittedly, this is a lot of work. But Nance and Obront have both had remarkable outperforming results in the organizations they’ve built — likewise, if you look at Delta Force or the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, you see they’ll often take less than 10% of applicants… who already among the top 5% of the their respective military branches.

***

SELECTION PROCEDURES GUIDANCE: ACTA NON VERBA

The second universal principle is the Latin expression, “Acta Non Verba.”

“Deeds, not words.”

A lot of people can talk a good game, are likable and seem competent, and have seemingly impressive credentials.

Counterintuitively, most of the worst hiring and selection decisions you’ll make in your life will be people who speak well, who are charismatic, and who are credentialed. It can be tempting to see an impressive facade of a likable and credentialed person, and to stop looking past it.

But in any organization looking to do truly unique and expansive things, there will inevitably be stressors, pressure, ambiguity, moments of intense difficulty.

The more you can simulate hardship and see how a person performs under it, the more you know who they really are.

Acta Non Verba ­ — Deeds, Not Words.

If you read Haney’s account of his time in Delta Force Selection, he clearly wasn’t the most charismatic candidate. There were also soldiers who had more formal decorations, awards, and pedigree.

But Haney was able to keep himself sane and together criss-crossing mountains, dealing with nagging injuries and unpleasantries… and enduring through the bad luck of missing a trail cut-off turning a 40 mile march into a 55 mile march.

That’s a guy who isn’t going to quit.

In the early days of Google, they received a lot of talented job applications by advertising challenging programming and mathematics puzzles without mentioning that the problem was for Google or what would happen if you solved it.

Like a moth to a flame, these complicated intellectual puzzles drew in the people who genuinely enjoyed solving difficult intellectual challenges. There was no promise of reward — just a challenging puzzle. The people who solved them both demonstrated genuine intellectual curiosity and fundamental competence. Acta Non Verba.

This can be tricky to set up — it’s more tricky than it seems to get it right — but if you get it right, you’ll select for people who have repeatedly demonstrated they have the qualities it takes to succeed in the roles you’re looking for.

***

CONCLUSION

In addition to raw numbers and building Acta Non Verba selection procedures, of course, you need to know what predicts success and failure in the roles you’re looking for.

But this isn’t magic — a lot of what makes people successful is universal across domains.

One last excerpt from Inside Delta Force. During stress phase, on one day, the candidates were given an impossible time cut-off to make. It was designed so that they’d arrive around the overdue point at their second-to-last checkpoint, with it impossible to make the time standard for the final checkpoint —

“As the day wore on I started to get worried. It was less than thirty minutes until Overdue Time and I was still more than a kilometer away from the my next RV. I poured on my reserves of energy and picked up my pace. I came stoking into the RV with about five minutes to spare, shouting my color and number as soon as I saw the sitter.

He consulted his watch, jotted down my info, told me to hang my ruck on the scales at the RV, and pointed to one of the sheets of acetate paper situated around the area. “Come see me when you’re ready,” he said.

I hung my rucksack on the scales and went to plot my next RV. [Haney thought,] I’m screwing now. There’s no way I can get to the next RV with what, two minutes left until Overdue Time? Why hadn’t I moved faster? Why hadn’t I picked better routes? I’d moved as hard as I could. I’d picked the best routes I could figure. It just wasn’t going to be enough. I went to report to the sitter.

He glanced up as I started to spread my map and go through the drill. “Take your ruck off the scales and go sit by that big rock,” he said, gesturing to the other side of the clearing.

I looked in his eyes briefly for a clue as to how I had done but saw no hint of information. “Okay,” I replied as I hoisted my rucksack off the hood and went to the place he had indicated. Man, I thought as I sat down and propped my feet up. If I’ve screwed this day up, Superman himself would have had a tough time.

I sat there sipping water and studying the routes I had taken that day. No, I couldn’t see how I could have picked better routes. And even though the routes were more difficult today, I had still managed to make what I considered to be good time. But if that wasn’t good enough, I was in trouble.

Within the next half hour, other guys came rushing into the RV, uniforms ripped and torn, sweat-soaked, faces splotched red from exertion. They all received the same treatment I had and each of them eyed me quizzically when they saw me sitting down, apparently finished, while they plotted their next RV.

The fourth man to come into position stared longingly at the three of us sitting together on the far side of the clearing when the sitter told him to hang his ruck on the scale and move to his instruction sheet. He just stood there, shoulders slumped, chest heaving, and hands at his side. After a short paude, he took a ragged breath and said, “I voluntarily withdraw.”

The sitter replied, “Take your rucksack and move over there, down the slope, and sit down,” and pointed to a position that would be out of sight of the RV.

The poor guy stumbled away out of sight. He never looked back. Our little cluster kept our mouths shut and only lifted eyebrows at one another in communication.

What was the lesson here? Simple. Don’t quit. Never quit no matter what. Keep going until someone tells you to sit down. Keep going as long as you’re able to move, no matter how poorly you think you may be doing. Just don’t quit.

Unity is glorious — but hard to achieve.

Start with Raw Numbers.

Test for Acta Non Verba.

It’s a lot of work as a leader — but necessary for building truly remarkable elite teams.

Sebastian Marshall
Editor, TheStrategicReview.net

***

This is the fourth issue in our series on Unity. If you want to follow the rest of the series, you can join The Strategic Review for free here —

http://www.thestrategicreview.net/

If you’re interested in this type of thing, you’ll also almost certainly like the free Ultraworking event we’re having on 24 March —

24 March: Free Work Cycles

We’ll be doing a round of free Work Cycles — a way to get an immense amount done in a short period of time. It always gets rave reviews — if you want to get some peak productivity in on 24 March, you can register for free here.

The Strategic Review

Long-form, actionable insights from history. Read by top investors, attorneys, military officers, engineers, programmers, scientists, creatives, and executives around the world.

Sebastian Marshall

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Join The Strategic Review for long-form actionable insights from history: www.thestrategicreview.net

The Strategic Review

Long-form, actionable insights from history. Read by top investors, attorneys, military officers, engineers, programmers, scientists, creatives, and executives around the world.

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