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Vol. 2, No. 9
(626) 791-8973

Why is Commando Leadership So Successful? – Here is One Reason

© William A. Cohen, PhD 2004

In 509 BCE, Lars Porsenna, an Etruscan king, led a surprise attack against Rome when it was still a city-state. The city proper was considered almost invulnerable. It was protected by high walls on three sides and the Tiber River on the remaining side. These obstacles completely surrounded the city proper. However these defenses had an important vulnerability. This was the existence of the wooden Sublician bridge over the Tiber. In case of attack, the plan was to burn the bridge and a special unit was assigned permanently to the bridge for this purpose.

However, the Roman plan of defense was faulty. The bridge was valuable. The Romans did not want to destroy it unnecessarily. So, the unit whose responsibility it was to destroy the bridge was stationed on the far side. The idea was that if an identified group approached, the officer in-charge could access the situation up close and not destroy the bridge unless it was absolutely necessary. He and the unit would retreat across the bridge and then burn it before an enemy could cross. This procedure had never been tested in practice and it failed.

A young Roman officer by the name of Horatius Cocles captained the special “commando” unit which was on duty when the Etruscans approached. The Etruscans approached stealthily. By the time Horatius and his men recognized the threat, the Etruscans were almost on top of them. It was too late to destroy the bridge behind them after retreating. The sudden and unexpected appearance of the Etruscan attack force caused a near panic and Horatius’ men started to run. However, now that he recognized the danger, Horatius committed to his objective no matter what.

Horatius stopped his men before they could escape without destroying the bridge. He ordered them back to the far side where the Etruscans were almost at the bridge. He persuaded them that their only hope was to set fire to the wooden bridge as rapidly as they could while he and two others delayed the enemy’s advance. His commitment to destroying the bridge and stopping the Etruscans helped to steady them for their task.

The Etruscans didn’t know what to make of the situation. They were confused that only three men stood between them and the entrance to the bridge to prevent them from crossing. Their indecision caused a delay which allowed Horatius’ men to set fire to the bridge behind Horatius and his two companions. The bridge ablaze, at the last minute Horatius ordered the two soldiers with him to retreat through the flames to safety.

Horatius fought on alone. Behind him he heard the weakened bridge fall into the river. Then, even though he wore heavy armor, Horatius jumped into the river. Some say Horatius survived, some say not. All agree that if it were not for Horatius commitment to his objective, which he made clear to those he led, the Etruscans would have captured Rome. The story of Horatius was told and retold to generation after generation to Roman school children and to new military recruits. Horatius was used as the greatest example of Roman commitment to duty and honor.

Horatius’ feat represents the few against the many. This exemplifies commando operations. They attack or defend with a few against the many. Here are a few of their accomplishments in recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that we know about:

  • In Afghanistan, they were called the “primary instruments” on the ground. There were only between 200 and 300 Special Ops troops, but they hit the ground before anyone else and by many estimates did the work of 100 times their number.
  • Their work with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan saved hundreds of lives. Special operators working with CIA teams organized offensive operations by the Afghan resistance, even taking the fight to the Taliban on horseback, although the U.S. Army hadn’t used horses in battle since World War I.
  • A handful of special operators turned around a demoralized Northern Alliance in days — winning the confidence of the anti-Taliban force, a primary concern of American commanders and politicians.
  • In Iraq, operating in units of 12 or fewer, they met secretly with indigenous peoples hundreds of miles beyond friendly lines. Alone with natives they did not know, they identified tribal leaders willing to pledge allegiance to the United States. Using high technology lasers, and getting up close, they precisely identified enemy military targets for U.S. warplanes, minimizing incidents of friendly fire.
  • They seized oil infrastructure, took control of airfields and other key sites in southwestern Iraq, and prevented dams from being blown, worked with the Kurds up north and helped target and capture Iraqi leadership in key cities.
  • They plucked Pfc. Jessica Lynch from the center of an enemy- controlled area, and got her to safety before the Iraqis even realized she was gone.
  • They nabbed the terrorist Abu Abbas, who years earlier had hijacked an Italian cruise ship and murdered an American invalid.
  • They cleared the way and prepared the ground for the largest military parachute landing since World War II.
  • They led the forces that went in and dragged Saddam Hussein from his spider-hole hideout.

Commandos, or special operations as we call them today, are unique because they go against standard military dictates which require superior numbers or weaponry, “combat [power” to be successful. In special operations a numerically smaller force attacks a larger one. To accomplish this successfully, commandos use surprise, speed, and deception. But to be successful, my analysis shows that they need and have something else and that this can be applied to all leadership situations including business. One of the special attributes I’ve discovered particularly applicable to both modern and ancient commandos and other human endeavors is the commitment of the leader.

Commando Leaders Are Totally Committed

If you aren’t totally committed to a project, no one else will be. However, if you are, others will follow you even at great disadvantage to themselves. You don’t lead others by half heartedly trying. You lead others to achieve every objective you set. Over time, this picks up momentum such that your subordinates know that if you set a certain objective, it’s going to be attained.

Being totally committed yields dramatic results because:

  1. It proves that the goal you set is worthwhile and important.
  2. It confirms that you, the leader, aren’t going to quit before the objective is achieved.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “If you start to take Vienna – take Vienna. “ If you are the leader, you should adopt the same philosophy. If you do, you, too can be successful with the few against the many.