Former Delta Force Commander: 'If in Charge, Take Charge'

Interview: Delta Force veteran and TigerSwan Chairman Jim Reese

U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan / AP
January 29, 2017

Lt. Col. (Retired) Jim Reese is a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Army. Reese served with the Army's most elite special operations force, Delta Force, as a troop commander, squadron operations officer, and as ''the Unit's'' operations officer. He later served as a task force operations officer, chief of staff, and commander within the deployed combat elements of Joint Special Operations Command. Today, Reese is founder and chairman of TigerSwan, a private company focused on global stability operations.

Famed Delta officer Tom Greer (who passed away last October) described Reese this way: ''Reese, a stand-out Ranger and Delta officer, quite possibly would have made [General] Grant appear wanting when it came to working through chaos, calming nerves, and demanding the best out of subordinates.''

The Washington Free Beacon interviewed Reese to discover what he has learned during his long and distinguished career.

Washington Free Beacon: What are the key leadership lessons you took from your military career?

Jim Reese: Number one: Strive to be a good listener. You have to be a good listener and an active listener. Number two: If in charge, take charge. When a follower, be a loyal follower. Live by the old adage, "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way." The third lesson is, be a "servant leader!" Lead for your people; get out from behind the desk and lead by walking around. Know your people and let them know you.

Jim Reese
Jim Reese

WFB: What is the key quality of a special operations forces (SOF) operator?

Reese: Someone with an entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, we don't always get that in SOF. But the best SOF leaders are those that have clear, entrepreneurial spirits and creativity. I really think the key word is entrepreneurship. The best operators want to look at things differently all the time. I used to challenge all my folks, ''If your response is, 'Well, this is the way we've always done it,' be prepared to be scrutinized. I'm going to be in your knickers now to really see how efficient you are." We always have to look for more ways to be efficient, to be better.

WFB: Do you believe Delta has perfected its selection process for new recruits?

Reese: Even in Delta there's room to improve. I think Delta has it set pretty well, but an organization can always do it better. In Delta I loved the adage: ''Every day is a selection!'' Unfortunately, ego is the factor that separates the good people and the best. Too big of an ego stops you from being a servant leader. What disappointed me with a small percentage of some Delta operators was the attitude "I've got mine, I've done the long walk, I've made it through OTC (operator training course)." I felt those folks slipped through the cracks. They didn't have the entrepreneurial spirit to always be striving for new efficiencies, new ways of doing it, better ways of doing it. You didn't see it that much, but you did see it. Those operators were good, but not the best.

WFB: What advice would you give to someone preparing for Delta selection?

Reese: Don't try to overanalyze the course and do not listen to people that attended selection and failed. Keep your mind free of predetermined thoughts. Realize that this is not a leadership course; it's a course about you, the individual, against the odds and the environment.

WFB: Have U.S. Special Operations Forces successfully adapted their training operations to deal with evolving threats?

Reese: In general, yes. One problem in SOF right now, from my humble opinion, is SOF is chasing many different mission sets at times. And we think the training has got to differ for each set. In Delta, I learned from one of my sergeant majors the adage "Brilliance in the basics." There is no advanced training, just perfect execution of the basics, under stress! In the military, the key is "shoot, move, and communicate." If you do those things like no one else in the world can do them, you can do anything.

You can apply that methodology throughout life and in the corporate world. Being a writer, for example. You must write to improve your writing, and eventually you will be the best writer you can be. Concentrating on the basics—Delta has that down. The shooting, for example. People would ask me, "Why does Delta shoot so much?" And I would say, "We shoot under stress, so when we are being shot at or we have to take the surgical threat-no threat shot, it's not a big deal." Unfortunately across all elements of U.S. SOF, the senior leadership in some areas fail to allow operators to concentrate on the basics as much as we should. We get too caught up in other things.

WFB: Is there a foreign SOF unit that you believe sets a global standard in a particular area?

Reese: I compare other foreign units against Delta. Delta is the best in the world at entering an unknown situation and quickly delineating friend from foe, and can fight in multiple directions. Then there's the British SAS and SBS. They have the adage, "Who Dares, Wins." I've always loved that about those guys. Because they will make it happen with limited or no assets. Their bravery and their ability to do things with limited assets is just incredible. I also think Iraqi SOF are proving their mettle against Daesh. Iraqi SOF are leading that war in Iraq right now. And I'll tell you, in Afghanistan, the Afghan SOF has an incredible capability. Unfortunately, they're being used for things they shouldn't be. And they're being decimated at times.

WFB: What's the best way to manage human resources in SOF and in business?

You've got to be willing to put the best individual on the worst job. Sometimes an individual will say, "Boss, look, I'm doing a great job, why are you moving me?!" And I'll say, "You are doing a great job. But now I'm going to let somebody who's not as good as you continue to run that operation, and I'm going to put you on the toughest job. Because that's where I need you." The problem, after fifteen years of war, is that SOF is a finite asset. And you have to manage that asset because it cannot be mass produced. And you have to manage the asset or you will lose it.

WFB: One of the lessons that you have imparted to me is the importance of taking emotion out of analysis. But how did you—as someone who lost close colleagues to adversaries you later had to sit down with—come to that conclusion?

Reese: Maturity. Good leaders have to continue to educate themselves. You have to keep developing. If you don't continue to develop, you crash and burn. A commitment to learning increases our maturity, which increases our ability to remove emotion from analysis. Strive to be non-parochial. The leader I developed into as a colonel was much different than when I was a sergeant, a company grade officer, or even a field grade officer. I strived for constant improvement and education, and not necessarily formal education. Doing so increased my maturity and analytical skills. You've got to be open to learning. If you're not open to learning, that's where leader maturity stops. Challenge yourself to be a student of the game. Read, go to seminars, and be open to learn from others including our allies and enemies.

Unfortunately, I think that's a problem with some senior leaders both in the military and industry. We can always learn more. In the business world, for example, old guys like me can learn from Millennials: What do they see, what motivates them? My business acumen continues to move upward daily. The education I receive daily from owning and running a company is off the charts. The learned maturity and ability to firewall our emotions allows us the ability to sit and learn from old enemies. In Iraq, the Iraqi Army has advisers from the Iranian Quds forces, and I have had opportunities to sit with them, listen, and learn from their perspective. People say to me, "They killed our people." And I say, "You're right. But right now we're fighting with them in our battlespace with our ally." Take the learned maturity, analysis, and deal with what is right in front of you.

WFB: Whether soldiers, business owners, journalists, etc. do you believe we value introspection in our society?

Reese: No, I don't, and I believe we must get better at it. Again, this goes back to self-educating and maturity. When I travel around the world, it's amazing to see the minds that sit on top of people who most others would observe from a first take as not very smart. These individuals might even be illiterate. But that doesn't make them stupid. It just means they can't read and write. That is one problem with our country at the moment. We only pay attention to certain sections of the country. Areas of the country most politicians see as the influence areas. We saw that in the election, and we saw what happens when you don't pay attention and fail to be an active listener to others. Introspection is critical, and being an active listener helps us be introspective. Don't just listen, listen to what's said. And sometimes realize being introspective and a good listener means you don't have to respond, just smile.

WFB: You prioritize consideration of the possible second- and third-order effects of an immediate choice or situation. What made you embrace that analytical perspective?

Reese: My time in the Ranger Regiment. The Rangers are renowned for being the best planners in SOF. It's not only anticipating the second- and third-order effects, but understanding them, planning for them, and discussing cause and effects across your entire team.

WFB: Whether at Delta or with TigerSwan today, to what degree do you focus on external perceptions of your actions as well as realities?

Reese: Perception is reality to many. Especially today with the speed and ambiguity of social media. It's important to get up on the mountain and look down at our actions from an outsider's or belligerent's perspective. It is part of the education process. When I first became operational in Delta, the outside perspective to many in our SOF or conventional forces was that Delta were cowboys. Or that we planned by the seat of our pants. I focused on that external perception and ensured that the units I was leading stood out as the lead planning element and that we were cerebral.

Currently at TigerSwan, our work situation with the Dakota Access Pipeline* is an incredible case study. I have been called a terrorist 432 times in the last several months and un-American. My wife has been attacked on social media, and our staff verbally attacked. I chuckle and laugh it off, and tell others who attack us that I hope their venting makes them feel better. Those attackers are letting emotion cloud their analysis because they don't know the facts. They take snippets and sound bites on social media and mass media and make it their reality. My job is to understand that it is their reality and realize the second- and third-order effects. It's the old adage: ''One day you're the hero, the next day you're the zero.'' The way I deal with these perceptions is being a servant leader to both our people in TigerSwan and our clients. I can see and hear the frustration of our team and our client. I listen to them but don't get caught up in the emotion. You have to show your people calm.

I learned this lesson as a young captain from [retired U.S. Army] Gen. Dave McKiernan, who I think is one of the greatest leaders I ever worked for. We were in a horrible position and everyone was emotional and spinning out of control on the radio net. He came across to me on the net and calmed the situation just with the stillness in his voice. He told me, "Here's what you've got to remember. As people start spinning out of control, you need to be spinning down. Be cool, calm, and collected, flatline." As the situation becomes more serious, leaders must be calm. That's not to say that leaders cannot show emotion and need to be robots. But when there is a crisis, the true leader stands out by staying calm and providing "Brilliance in the Basics."

Ret. Gen. David McKiernan / AP
Ret. Gen. David McKiernan / AP

WFB: If President Trump asked you for one piece of management advice, what would you tell him?

Donald Trump is a very successful businessman. However, my two pieces of advice for him would be to listen and watch. I would advise the president to spend his first 100 days gathering and assessing the facts. The media and political analysts are wrapped around his first 100 days and everything he is going to do. Why not just do a little? Don't do many things at all in the first 100 days. Sit back and meet all the different agencies and listen to the workers who truly run our government. Find out all the things that are going right and wrong. I call this the bottom-up approach. Why ask the chairman of the joint staff or the secretary of defense how it's going at the Pentagon? They will receive filtered responses. I would advise him to talk with the colonels and sergeants majors to get a real assessment of the issues within the walls of the Pentagon, then analyze those against what the senior leaders say. The president will have a better understanding of the issues.

WFB: Is there anything else you want to add?

Reese: Be a servant leader, leave your ego at the door, and always be open to learning. As football coach Eric Taylor always says before each game: "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."

*TigerSwan is involved in an advisory role for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project. DAPL security site personnel have been repeatedly attacked, but Reese has instructed them to deescalate wherever possible.

Published under: Military