As a young Marine lieutenant, I initially thought of the chain of command in terms of hierarchy. That it was about rank, position, and authority, clarified who gave orders and who received them, and made sure everyone knew who was in charge.

Each of those things is accurate of course, and there are sound reasons for them. The pace and risk in combat — or even humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions — require clear lines of authority and responsibility to allow timely decision-making in those complex situations. The military’s hierarchical chain of command is intended to preserve a degree of order in the midst of chaos.

In any organization, someone has to be responsible and accountable for creating a shared vision, setting goals, clarifying priorities, and allocating resources. Decisions must be made and leaders must make them, so even the flattest and most collaborative teams rely on some form of hierarchy.

Over the course of more than 20 years as a Marine however, I began to recognize and appreciate something else about the military’s chain of command – it is a chain of linked arms.

Corporals want their junior Marines to become corporals. Sergeants want their corporals to become sergeants, and so on, up through the officer ranks where most any executive officer aspires to be a commanding officer some day, and commanders want their XOs to become COs.

(The risks of an environment and culture that encourages toxic competition is a topic for a future Hard NoCs blog, but it’s worth mentioning here that while any given XO wants to become a CO, they aren’t gunning for their boss’s position.)

The military’s chain of command is made of links to give it structure, but those links are made of hands gripping forearms, of leaders and mentors helping lift others up to ensure they excel and succeed as individuals. At the same time, that sort of culture contributes directly to the success of the organization.

Here are three tips to help leaders create an organizational culture in which the chain of command is seen as a chain of linked arms.

Provide Clear GAD and Delegate Authority

I’ve long had a framed note on the wall above my desk that reads, “The only way to delegate responsibility is to die.” That is admittedly a pretty extreme perspective. It stems from something I was taught early on as a leader: we can delegate authority, but we can’t delegate responsibility.

As founder and CEO of North of Center, I’m responsible for everything my team does or fails to do – but I can delegate authority throughout the company. That is one of the best ways I’ve found to unleash the creativity, adaptability, and innovation of my team members and gain the full advantage of their experience, expertise, and eagerness to succeed.

To accomplish this, I use a method I call GAD-O. I provide clear guidance, advice, and direction, then I step back and go into overwatch. From there I am in a good position to look up, out, and ahead for the organization while at the same time being available to every member of my team to provide help or permission when they need it.

Sometimes this means coming forward to help someone break through a barrier. Sometimes it means guiding them around a pothole so they don’t crash and burn. Other times it means giving permission to go off-road because someone found a better path, and I’ll update my GAD to realign the entire team in that new direction.

By delegating authority, leaders free themselves up to focus on the strategic path while unleashing innovation and creativity throughout a team and being accessible to each member of that team when they need help breaking down barriers or permission to forge a new and innovative path.

Operate in Terms of Supported and Supporting Relationships

North of Center uses a framework called Communication-Based Leadership (CBL) to guide our coaching and consulting work with clients. One of the cornerstone principles of CBL is, “Leadership is about relationships.” How leaders think about and build key relationships contributes directly to creating a chain of command of linked arms. With this in mind, when assigning goals and tasks I recommend doing it based on supported and supporting relationships rather than putting a person or department “in charge.”

When I recently provided my annual strategic GAD to the NoC team, I first got their buy-in to create a shared vision, then established concrete, measureable, achievable goals and set our priorities. One of our goals is to codify our coaching methodology for leader and team development so we can turn it into a published book and series of on-line courses. Our VP of Leader and Team Development, Kyle Voigt, is the right person for that job, so he is in the Supported role for that goal with the rest of the team – me included! – in the Supporting role. Yes, this means from time to time my own VP tells me what he needs me to do so we can reach our goal together.

I’m still responsible for making sure the goal is achieved, but if Kyle needs something from anyone as the team moves forward, they are ready when he asks for it. Having received my GAD, they also know how our goals are prioritized and have the authority to allocate time and resources to help Kyle in this important task.

Thinking in terms of Supported and Supporting relationships contributes to creation of an organizational culture that encourages mutual support, adaptability, and innovation through a chain of command made of linked arms.

Prioritize Team-Member Growth Over Retention

My third recommendation for building a chain of command of linked arms is perhaps the most challenging, and may even seem counterintuitive: concentrate on helping your team members recognize and realize – literally make real – their potential (that’s the easy part), but do it without concern about losing them to growth or poaching (that’s the hard part).

Particularly in small organizations, opportunities to move up through promotion are often limited. Sometimes those opportunities can be created through an organization’s growth and expansion. As NoC gains clients and reaches its capacity, we’ll need to bring more coaches and consultants onto the team, which will grow Kyle’s role immensely. Those additional team members will turn to Kyle as VP of our leader and team development lines of business to translate GAD into action.

Our entire team is committed to helping each other (as well as our clients!) learn and grow as leaders. If that means team members eventually outgrow NoC, I’ll count that as success. I have every confidence Kyle will learn and grown in his VP position as both a coach and a consultant, and that he’ll improve North of Center. Yet it’s entirely possible he’ll reach a point where he finds more opportunity in moving to another company or venture out on his own — and I’m cool with that! By strengthening relationships through a chain of linked arms, we’ll create trust and encourage retention. But we’ll also create capable colleagues and enduring friends who continue to realize our vision of creating strong values-driven leaders, even if they leave North of Center to do it.

Pay and benefits contribute to employees’ decisions to accept a position and stay with a company, but the number one driver for retention is job satisfaction. The advantage of building a chain of command of link arms isn’t locking people into their job, it’s that by helping them realize their potential both as members of your team and as individuals, you create a culture of trust and support that makes people want to stay.

Go Build That Chain!

Leaders need to lead, and someone has to bear ultimate responsibility for success or failure. But a hierarchy does not need to be rigid or stifling. A chain of command can be a chain of linked arms designed to help each member of a team reach their fullest potential.

Three ways to help create such a chain are to provide clear GAD and delegate loads of decision-making authority throughout your organization; to assign goals and tasks based on Supported and Supporting relationships; and to prioritize the personal and professional growth of your team members over your effort to retain them.

Each of these is a way to find balance between the degree of hierarchy necessary to hold leaders responsible and accountable for achievement of an organization’s goals while simultaneously unleashing the potential of a team that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Cliff W. Gilmore

Cliff W. Gilmore

CEO at North of Center, LLC
Cliff holds a PhD in organization and management with a specialization in leadership. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he completed operational deployments to Fallujah, Iraq and Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan. He has led multi-national and inter-agency teams including approximately one year on loan from the Corps as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He also directly advised the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on public and media engagement regarding national security matters for two years as Special Assistant for Public Communication. Today he puts that experience to work helping people become the kind of leaders they would want to follow.
Cliff W. Gilmore
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