As a young Marine lieutenant, I initially thought of the chain of command in terms of hierarchy. It was about rank, position, and authority, and clarified who gave orders and who received them. Basically the chain of command made clear who was in charge.
Each of those things is accurate and there are sound reasons for them. The military’s hierarchical chain of command is intended to preserve a degree of order in the midst of chaos. 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 and often rapidly evolving situations.
Over the course of more than 20 years leading Marines however, I grew 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 someday, and commanding officers want their executive officers to become COs.
Even the flattest and most collaborative teams rely on some form of hierarchy. In any organization, someone has to be responsible and accountable for creating a shared vision, setting goals, clarifying priorities, and allocating resources. And some decisions can only be made by leaders with the official (or even legal) authority to make them.
The military’s chain of command is made of links to provide that 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. That sort of culture contributes directly to the success of an organization.
Here three tips to help leaders foster an organizational culture in which the chain of command is seen as a chain of linked arms:
- Clarify your priorities and provide clear guidance, advice, and direction (GAD)
- Delegate authority in terms of supported and supporting relationships
- Prioritize team-member growth over retention.
Follow us here at the Blog of Hard NoCs for further discussion about each of these tips.
We will explore tools to help with prioritization and decision-making, the idea that leaders are responsible for everything their team member do or fail to do, and the counter-intuitive idea of growing team members without worrying about whether you’ll keep them.
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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.