A Good Selection Course Never Ends

According to the Special Tactics philosophy, two critical factors have a greater impact on combat performance than any other: training and selection. While we have written several online articles on training, we have yet to cover selection. The following article offers some concepts and guidelines that can help any unit (regardless of size) improve its selection, promotion and incentives system. The article is adapted from our newest book, Winning the Fight: A Conceptual Framework for Combat Performance Enhancement.


Selection and training are inextricably linked. First, training is not limited to planned events and field exercises but rather includes everything a tactical professional does over the course of his/her career. Training by nature is oriented toward achieving progress over time and therefore, most effective training activities are tracked or evaluated in some way. Thus, the result of any training activity, either formal or informal, is also a selection process, formally or informally. Those who perform well in training are selected for additional responsibilities and opportunities, or at least they should be.

Therefore, according to our philosophy, the concept of selection goes beyond spending a few weeks or months carrying a rucksack for a long distance or enduring the hardships of fatigue, hunger, heat and cold etc. While, such evolutions can be extremely effective for selecting personnel for elite units, the broader concept of selection relates to almost every aspect of day-to-day operations. Selection includes choosing personnel for promotion, determining which members of a unit should be afforded greater responsibility or even selecting units for special assignments or missions. As the saying goes, “selection never ends.”


An organization’s methods of selecting individuals for promotion and units for key assignments incentivizes certain traits or attributes and encourages their growth within the organization. If an organization promotes individuals primarily based on their physical fitness, everyone in the organization will focus on improving fitness levels in order to secure promotion and may neglect other areas because there is no incentive to focus on them.

This phenomenon of incentives is a double-edged sword. In some cases, selection or promotion systems unknowingly incentivize the wrong attributes. For example, consider a promotion system where the most important factor for promotion is a favorable written evaluation from superiors. While it might seem logical that a superior officer is best qualified to evaluate his/her subordinates and a superior’s opinion should carry the most weight, there may be unintended side effects associated with this approach.

If the most important factor for promotion is a positive evaluation from superiors, every member of the organization will focus on pleasing his/her superiors and neglect other things. In such a system, earning the respect of subordinates and peers might have no effect on an individual’s prospect for promotion. This may encourage leaders to neglect subordinates or clash with peers to win the favor of superiors, breeding a culture of sycophants and “yes-men.” To make matters worse, if yes-men are promoted in front of others, they will rise to positions where they can have greater influence on the force as a whole. Conversely, leaders who are not yes-men may grow frustrated and leave the force early. Thus, incentivizing a certain trait slowly spreads that trait to the entire force and drives out those who do not possess it.

Understanding the power of incentives makes it clear how important it is to incentivize the right attributes instead of the wrong ones. This is easier to accomplish than it appears. All it requires is to identify the traits that will actually lead to success and mission accomplishment in the real world and find ways to measure and encourage those traits. At the most basic level, the mission of any tactical unit is simple: win the fight. Therefore, the logical next step is to incentivize winning. Is the ability to put on a show for superiors helpful for winning on the battlefield? Most likely it is not, so it makes no sense to incentivize that ability. What if instead a unit conducts frequent and realistic combat training exercises or competitions, and the leaders who win most often are promoted? This approach incentivizes winning. Instead of spending time trying to please superiors, leaders will spend time training hard to win the next fight.

Some might argue that existing promotion systems based on a superior’s evaluation already accomplish this in a different way. The argument would be that superiors account for factors such as performance in training exercises and leadership ability when writing their evaluations. In some cases this might indeed be true. However, in other cases it might not, and there is no sure way to tell the difference. Does a glowing evaluation truly reflect a leader’s abilities or is it simply the result of favoritism? It is difficult to know.

In reality, if the actual factor that triggers promotion is the evaluation of a superior, that is most likely what people will focus on, rather than focusing on performance in the hope that superiors will recognize and appreciate it. It is more practical to directly incentivize the skills and attributes inherent in victory. Even simple, quantifiable performance measures will offer much better results. For example, many Cold War armor units focused on subordinate units’ tank gunnery scores when considering the commanders of those units for promotion. While accurate shooting is not the only skill required for tanks to win in combat, it is certainly an important one.

Cold War armor units that incentivized gunnery generally saw very positive results. Units and crews would fight with each other over limited simulator time, trying to squeeze in as much practice as possible to improve scores. This is proof that incentives clearly work. The next step is to incentivize more skills and traits that are useful in combat and place less emphasis on traits that do not promote mission success. This will create a chain reaction. Promoting individuals who possess the right attributes to win the fight will eventually result in the majority of command positions across the force being filled with fighters and winners.


The concepts discussed so far do not only apply to large organizations. Even if you are a junior leader and have limited power to directly influence rewards and promotions, you can still apply the same principles to incentivize the attributes that lead to victory in combat. Sometimes, informal rewards and honors can be just as powerful if not more powerful than formal ones. Here are some suggestions that any unit could implement:

  1. Hold regular competitions in different areas like shooting, physical fitness, medical tasks etc. and post a “leader board” for all to see that records the best results of these competitions. This will encourage team members to become more competitive and take pride in good performance.
  2. Make sure to record the results of every training event and conduct detailed After-Action-Reviews (AARs) where all members of the unit are free to offer candid criticism or praise of each other’s performance. Bringing mistakes out into the open fosters a culture of honest self-assessment and incentivizes better performance.
  3. Even if your organization does not allow you to create a formal selection for your unit, you can still create an informal selection event that all must pass before they are considered part of the team. While it is not necessary (and sometimes not possible) to drop candidates who fail selection, as a leader you can dictate that they must continue to attempt the selection event until they pass. Having an informal selection event can help build unit pride and enforce a standard of excellence across the unit. However, it is critically important that these informal selection events are safe, focus on actual combat performance and do not devolve into hazing or abusive behavior.
  4. It is often enough for leaders to simply recognize and praise good performance and steadfast dedication. Conversely, it can also be necessary to use disciplinary action or reprimands to correct poor performance or lack of effort. While this might seem straightforward, some units do not apply these principles consistently.


These are only a few ideas and suggestions relating to the concept of selection and how to use it to improve your unit’s combat performance. The key point is to incentivize the attributes that actually lead to victory in combat, instead of evaluating personnel based on factors that are either irrelevant or have an unintended negative impact on unit culture or professionalism. For a more detailed discussion of these concepts and how they relate to the bigger picture of combat performance, see our new book Winning the Fight: A Conceptual Framework for Combat Performance Enhancement.

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