09 September 2010

Decentralized Leadership—Easier Said than Done

Colonel (Ret) Christopher Paparone penned an excellent op-ed in Small Wars Journal regarding leadership styles appropriate for "ill-structured" or "wicked" problems, such as our modern counterinsurgency campaigns, as opposed to "command", associated with "well-structured" problems.

The topic has been discussed in some detail, most notably in TRADOC's Pamphlet 525-5-500, " Commander's Appreciation and Campaign Design". However, this excerpt from Col. Parapone's article serves as an excellent primer. 

Command is something associated with speed of decision-making and the critical need to do something or not do something even if the commander is not sure his/her command is the right one. The sources of power for command are coercion and compliance. Command is autocratic (hierarchical and coercive) in that it requires obedience (in its ideal form, execution-without-question). 
Management (or what the US military terms ―administration) is associated with deliberate (note the meaning of the term when hyphenated: de-liberate) setting of rules, process engineering, and rationally-derived resource allocation decisions to handle tame (recurrent) problems that have been solved before. Key management values are bureaucratic and technocratic (technological). The source of power for management is regulated by legal-rational rules and procedures. 
Leadership is associated with wicked situations that make command and managerial technical rationality problematic. Whether the situation is diagnosed as critical, tame, or wicked should drive whether to exercise command, management or leadership (and as Grint concludes, the complexity of the situation may demand elements of all three—and it is an art form to properly blend them). The key source of power for leadership is democratic (heterarchical) in nature in that it comes from those who, through intuitive processes and emotional responses, choose to follow.

I'm enthusiastic, yet somewhat skeptical of calls for more decentralized leadership within the Army, such as those examined in the book " The Starfish and the Spider". For starters, modern technology has given us the ability to micromanage on an unprecedented scale. For example, the Army's new Digital Training Management System could theoretically allow senior leaders to examine the training records of platoons or even individual soldiers. There's also the issue of the Army's organizational culture. Leaders can often think "in their intellectual comfort zone", usually based on their experience at more junior grades. This can unintentionally result in micromanagement as well.

Finally, As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, and the Army moves to a more stable garrison environment—filled with well-structured problems—it will be even more difficult to foster a culture of innovation and decentralization. We will have lost the ill-structured environment which allows "leadership", as defined by Col. Parapone, to flourish. 

How do we make true leadership—as opposed to command and management—a reality? 


Anonymous said...

Still the best book I've read on the subject that addresses these issues and concerns is the USMC pub MCDP 6 "Command and Control."
It starts out with a great vignette that discusses most of the technology and style issues and shows both the positive and negative.
Phil Ridderhof

Cameron Schaefer said...

I think that a more decentralized command and control structure will be necessary moving forward if we are to continue dealing with open-source insurgencies whose decision making cycles are far more rapid than traditional nation-state actors. However, you raise a good point that much of the motivation for changes in organizational structure may dissipate as our current conflicts wind down.

Another major issue is that in order for decentralized command to work you must have the lowest ranks filled with highly intelligent, creative, critical thinkers who have been trained to OODA well. While I'm always impressed with the guys I fly in and out of the AOR, I don't think the military has embraced this type of education and training thus far. Don Vandergriff's Adaptive Leadership Model is an excellent way to fill this void, but it's only now beginning to take hold in certain military circles. Until the military becomes serious about teaching front-line personnel how to think and make decisions autonomously, but within the Commander's Intent (also lacking), decentralized structures will not work.

Tierce said...

"could theoretically allow senior leaders to examine the training records of platoons or even individual soldiers."

Your naivete is touching ;) As a PL in an ARNG unit mobilizing for OEF, I can tell you that that is exactly what DTMS is used for. Training doesn't mean shit, just make sure everybody signs the sign-in roster.

Oh, and according to my Troop Commander, the new standard at MC3 is for the CO to write his OpOrd down to the squad level. WTF?

M.L. said...

You won't find the answer in doctrine, training, leadership, or any other of the DOTMLPF domains. This is a cultural issue. Army culture does not support decentralized decision making, primarily because of our concept of the commander's role as a chess player rather than a leader (Boyd captured this well in his examination of Command and Control vs. Leadership and Assessment).

This cultural dynamic is highly influenced by another cultural value: Soldiers do not want to accomplish the mission, and therefore cannot be trusted. This is perhaps best represented by the slogan "Mission First, People Always." Operating from this assumption, commanders cannot trust subordinates and therefore must assume the role of compliance enforcer. In contrast, under the decentralized model, commanders are leaders, and leaders align the purpose of subordinates with organizational goals (mission first=people first), thereby generating trust.

Until we change this culture which assumes the false dichotomy between the goals of the people and the goals of the organization, we will never be able to have decentralized decision making.