Leadership Toolbox: the Red Team

[May 7, 2020]  I started this Leadership Toolbox series in the first month of my leadership blog back in September 2014.  At the time, I saw the value of listing proven tools (regularly used by highly-successful leaders) was a great way to begin fixing leadership problems I saw in the U.S. Army.  Today’s topic is about Red Teams, which are a method of attacking failures and inefficiencies in an organization.

The “organization” can be any grouping of people.  Red Team usage is, however, uncommon.  Senior leaders in large, complex organizations that need an external method of finding gaps in their operations are reluctant because results can reflect poorly upon those leaders.  But red teams can be used by large and small businesses, level of the military, and even in families.  Red teams are a flexible, easily modifiable addition to the tools a leader can use.

Red teams do require a level of independence to be practical.  They should have no limits, other than ethical and legal restraints.  Yet, they must have the proper skill sets to work, and red teams must be lead by a person who understands the team’s purpose, limitations, and their work environment.  Anything less will devolve into the how-to-fail as a leader scenario we all want to avoid.

For example, the military has used Navy SEALS and other Special Forces to “attack” their most secure installations to find gaps in physical and operational security.  Unfortunately, the military has little written on how to organize, build, and staff such a team.  Consequently, military red teams are used in various ways but often miss the chance to capture and disseminate lessons and best practices.  This concern for improving red teams has started to change for the better.1

We can learn from the military on this subject.  Tools require maintenance and their use must be for a specific reason.  Like the spade shovel is used to dig dirt, a security red team can unearth problems the commander could not anticipate.  The nuts and bolts of designing and putting the team together are paramount.  So too, should any leader who uses the red team.

On a side note, I had the opportunity to be the lead on a military red team as an Army Major having just branch transferred from Infantry to Engineers.  Our new Battalion Commander wanted to know where to focus his training efforts; tactical or technical training.  He would put his resources where the weaknesses were discovered.  After two weeks in the field at the Engineer Training Center, and a day of writing up the results, we were disbanded.  The results of our red team remained a focal point for training over the next three years.


  1. http://armedforcesjournal.com/a-better-way-to-use-red-teams/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

16 thoughts on “Leadership Toolbox: the Red Team

  1. lydia

    Excellent article, Gen. Satterfield. You got me to ‘thinking’ again and now how can I use this idea of Red Teams. ?

    1. Janna Faulkner

      That’s why we are all here. This leadership blog is a great way to pickup tidbits of info to use in our daily lives. Reading it over time shows that it works for me and many others have testimonials to Gen. Satterfield’s value as a mentor.

  2. Ruth M. McMasters

    In the US Army, red teaming is defined as a “structured, iterative process executed by trained, educated and practiced team members that provides commanders an independent capability to continuously challenge plans, operations, concepts, organizations and capabilities in the context of the operational environment and from our partners’ and adversaries’ perspectives.”

  3. Gil Johnson

    When applied to intelligence work, red-teaming is sometimes called alternative analysis. So be on the lookout for alternative descriptions. In families, we might bring in a mutual friend to help us see things we would not typically see. Thus, the ‘red team’ can be used at any level. But those involved had better have the courage to hear the results and put those into action.

    1. Harry Donner

      Thanks Gil, good points and yes, even the family or your local grocery store can use a red team.

  4. Linux Man

    The United States intelligence community (military and civilian) has red teams that explore alternative futures and write articles as if they were despotic world leaders. Little formal doctrine or publications about Red Teaming in the military exists. Good for us.

  5. Nick Lighthouse

    A thorough red team test will expose vulnerabilities and risks regarding:
    Technology — Networks, applications, computers, weapon systems, appliances, etc.
    People — Staff, independent contractors, departments, business partners, etc.
    Physical — Offices, warehouses, substations, data centers, buildings, bases, etc.

    1. Dale Paul Fox

      Nick, excellent observation. I too have used a “red team” when I was in business. We just didn’t call it that. Interesting how others could think up the same idea.

    2. Tom Bushmaster

      Red teaming is normally associated with assessing vulnerabilities and limitations of systems or structures. Various watchdog agencies such as the Government Accountability Office and the National Nuclear Security Administration employ red teaming. Red teaming refers to the work performed to provide an adversarial perspective, especially when this perspective includes plausible tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) as well as realistic policy and doctrine.

      1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

        Yes! The FAA use of red teaming revealed severe weaknesses in security at Logan International Airport in Boston, where two of the four hijacked 9/11 flights originated. Some former FAA investigators who participated on these teams feel that the FAA deliberately ignored the results of the tests and that this resulted in part in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US.

  6. Edward M. Kennedy III

    The “good” bad guys !!! That’s all in a day’s work for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic’s Red Team, an expert team of good “bad guys” who conduct adversarial assessments on Department of Defense (DoD) and other networks to find vulnerabilities before the real bad guys get a chance to.

    1. Eric Coda

      If you wait long enough, the real-world adversaries will tell you what’s wrong with your system, usually at the worst time.

  7. Army Captain

    I can attest to the usefulness of Red Teams in the Army. I have been part of them although not often. When I read about them in Military.com, those teams are usually at a high level — like Gen. Satterfield using Navy SEAL teams as an example. True. Their usefulness, if properly authorized, is invaluable.

  8. Willie Shrumburger

    I never heard of these so-called red teams but they sound rather useful to an organization with the leaders that have the will to use them.


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