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Posted on Jun 7, 2004 in Armchair Reading

Command & Leadership

By Steven McWilliams

Command and Leadership

What is Command? 

Command: to have authority or jurisdiction over; to give an order or orders, to direct with authority; to exercise power or authority, be in control, act as a commander; power to control or dominate.

As indicated above, command is a rigid concept, without much room for interpretation.  A commander has the final word; he is the one who exercises power, the one who is in control.  It falls to him to grab the reins, set the objective(s), marshal his forces, and insure that objectives are achieved – efficiently, effectively and in accordance with the directive(s) of higher headquarters.

So how does the act of command work?  Does the captain of a destroyer command in much the same manner as a mechanized brigade commander?  Does a fighter squadron commander exercise his command as does the commander of a marine expeditionary unit?  At a basic level, yes.  Command is very structured, and every officer selected for command, at any level, is taught many of the same principles.  As with any of his subordinates, commanders have well-defined expectations, guidelines, and chains-of-command. 

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Command Responsibility

King Charles VII

 One aspect of command that is paramount to the commander’s actions is that of command responsibility.  In 1439, King Charles VII of Orleans had drafted an ordinance holding his military commanders liable should those under their command commit crimes against the civilian populace, irrespective of the commander’s participation in the crimes.  Similarly, the United States, in the early 1860s, commissioned Francis Lieber, a Columbia University professor, to codify the laws regarding armed conflict, a document titled the Lieber Code.

Francis Lieber

 Following this, after World War Two, the doctrine of command responsibility was re-defined to today’s standard, articulated by the United States Supreme Court as 1 United States Code 327 (1946).  Responsibility is defined here as a moral and legal accountability.  To expand, the commander himself is responsible for everything that his unit does (or fails to do).  

Via the chain-of-command, the commander holds subordinate commanders responsible for their individual sub-units.  Command without responsibility is not command at all, but an exercise in chaos and misdirection.  Interlocked with the concept of responsibility is delegation, an essential aspect of command whereby a commander passes certain elements of his authority to a member of his staff or a subordinate commander.  The staff serves as the contact point for the commander, coordinating tasks, minimizing the possibilities for error, and similar administrative matters.  A commander MAY delegate ANY part of his AUTHORITY to his staff or sub-commanders, but MAY NOT delegate ANY of his RESPONSIBILITY.  As well, certain command functions have been identified as needing to remain with commander.  These are:

* developing concepts for estimates and plans;
* processing and disseminating their concepts and plans;
* ensuring coordination of the effort of the command;
* supervising the execution of decisions.

For those having attended a "change-of-command" ceremony, it tends to be rather a somber event, marking the end of the outgoing officer’s command, while at the same time, the incoming commander shoulders the mantle of authority and responsibility – also a moment for somber reflection especially if it is the officer’s first command billet.  This event represents two distinct, yet linked, concepts – the relinquishing of both the authority and responsibility of command by the outgoing commander, and the acceptance those same properties by the incoming commander.

It may be surprising to discover that even such an organization such as Hizbollah has a well-defined command structure.  Magnus Ranstorp, in his book Hizbollah’s Command Structure: Its Structure, Decision-Making, and Relationship with Iranian Clergy and Institutions, indicates that, ". . . Hizbollah’s behavior is principally governed by the depth of allegiance of closely forged relationships between individual Hizbollah leaders and Iranian clergy. . . ", while acknowledging that there may still be considerable factionalism within the organization.  The overall command organ within Hizbollah is the Majlis al Shura, composed of 12 senior Hizbollah clergymen, with the military command immediately below.  In 1989, the Executive Shura was added, ranking immediately below the Majlis al Shura, as well as a Politbureau, a supervisory office that coordinates the work of various committees under the Jihad al-Bina or Holy Reconstruction Organ.

Thus we see that command exists in many different venues, aspects and environments.  Bloodthirsty terrorists, "barbarians", national armed forces, even corporations have a chain-of-command, albeit exercising "command" in a manner different from a military organization.  Though more prominent in a military organization, even business organizations suffer without a clear chain-of-command.  Innovators do not know to whom they should present their ideas, those who discover waste or mismanagement do not know whom to report to with complaints or improvements, different offices or divisions are oblivious to each other’s work, leading to duplication, or research by one group has already been attempted and discarded by another.

Thus is command administered.  When exercised rationally and even-handedly, command is highly effective and beneficial to its organization.

But command is not the whole story.  A commander may well and effectively command his organization, provide proper direction and guidance, but something may be missing.  Leadership, what some may call the "human touch", is at least as important as the exercise of command.

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