#Leadership: The Death of Command and Control

Command and control systems were designed in ages when information was considered key to controlling the universe. In Newton’s physics, if you knew a few key pieces of information, you could predict the future. Over time command and control systems were refined to give commanders more and more information in the belief that more information meant more control over a battlefield. Inherent in command and control is the assumption that information must be fed up to a commander, refined and calculated, then decisions fed down to subordinates. But modern experiences in warfare are invalidating the traditional command and control model of leadership.

For answers to how create adaptive, creative, and resilient leaders I turned to two military thinkers. The first is Colonel (retired) John Boyd and his presentation “Organic Design for Command and Control.”[1] The second is General (retired) Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams, based on the lessons he learned and changes he made to a command and control structure that was being defeated in the cities of Iraq.[2] Interestingly, without reference to each other both come to very similar conclusions.

John Boyd: Leaders must “suppress the tendency to build up explicit internal arrangements that hinder interaction with the external world.”

Boyd’s fundamental worldview was that organizations had to be externally facing, organized to interact with the external world and the enemy. He taught that you cannot defeat the enemy unless you are prepared to act against them. Consequently, leaders must “suppress the tendency to build up explicit internal arrangements that hinder interaction with the external world.”[3] His historical analysis indicated that winning organizations have insight and vision, focus and direction, adaptability, and security.

Boyd believed that the atmosphere of war is friction and that organizations must minimize internal friction while maximizing the enemy’s friction. Friction is diminished by implicit understanding, trust, cooperation, simplicity, and focus. The goal is to pair variety/rapidity with harmony/initiative in your own organization to break down the enemy’s ability to cope with change. Balance is required too, because harmony/initiative without variety/rapidity lead to predictable, and non-adaptable organizations.

Boyd concludes that command and control, especially when it comes with a large volume of information, will drive leaders to seize as much control as they can in a situation, and that this will only increase subordinates’ need to be inward facing, providing more information and requiring more decisions while minimizing interaction with the external environment/enemy.

Instead, command and control should be replaced with appreciation and leadership. Appreciation is the ability to understand or grok friendly and enemy actions.[4] Leadership is the ability to provide direction and interact with the system to shape its character. Notably, appreciation and leadership rests on the idea that humans have an implicit ability to cope with uncertainty and change.

McChrystal’s Team of Teams describes his leadership of the Joint Special Operations Task Force from 2005-2007. He inherited one of the best organized, most efficient, and capable organizations in the United States Military. However, on the streets of Iraq he found himself being defeated by a poorly equipped and trained terrorist force. He and his staff realized that the problem was not equipment, training, or tactics, but how the Task Force was organized.

The Task Force had been optimized to accomplish a few, well organized operations a year with high risk to those conducting the operations but low risk to the organization overall. Al Qaeda was organized to accomplish numerous operations at high risk to both the operators and the organization. Consequently, al Qaeda in Iraq was a resilient organization capable of withstanding traditional counter-terror operations while striking at a rate to which the Joint Special Operations Task Force could not replicate or respond.

McChrystal rebuilt his organization along three core ideas: information sharing, delegation of authority, and becoming a “gardener.” These changes would see exponential increases in the Joint Special Operations Task Force’s ability to fight the war, both increasing the number and frequency of operations while decreasing internal friction.

Information sharing was accomplished through three initiatives. The first was a daily operations and intelligence brief that was open to everyone in his organization and any stakeholders outside of his organization. Second, an open organizational structure that had everyone in the organization (operators, intelligence, logistics, legal, etc.) working next to each other without either physical or organizational barriers to communication. Third, a network of liaison officers and cross organization attachments where an operator might be attached to a partner organization or operators and intelligence analysts might spend months in each other’s units to create a human network within and between organizations.

Decision-making authority was delegated to the person on the ground. Everyone in the organization was empowered to make decisions in collaboration with each other instead of focusing decisions, and thus power, to the top of the hierarchy. Power was distributed across the organizations, not centralized with the man at the top.

And finally, McChrystal became a gardener. This meant taking care of each person in the organization, ensuring that they knew their place in the fight and their organizations values and goals. His job was to grow his subordinates by fertilizing their environment, ensuring they had the right amount of sunlight and water, trimming where necessary, and sharing the produce.

After taking apart both Boyd and McChrystal’s work, let’s compare them and reassemble them into a new structure that points to a better method of leadership in the complex world.[5]

First is the leader’s relationship with information. A leader does not hoard and control information, the leader ensures information is shared. A leader’s job is to ensure the flow of information throughout the organization, to promote collaboration. The leader breaks down barriers and clears log jams where information is bottlenecked. This simultaneously increases understanding of the enemy, reduces internal friction, and empowers members to act.

An example of this General Yashayan Gonen in the June 1967 war. Gonen focused his battlefield role on collecting and disseminating information at every level of the battlefield. He spent his time at subordinate headquarters observing their interactions, listening to unit radio nets to sense what they were experiencing, reading dispatches and intelligence from higher headquarters on what was occurring around the country and sharing those dispatches with his subordinates. In one case this allowed him to correct an “entirely false” impression of the battlefield that was being developed by a subordinate headquarters. He did not use his superior understanding of the battlefield to override the orders of that headquarters and take control of their decisions. Instead, he used his understanding of the battlefield to correct the subordinates’ understanding and allow them to continue making decisions with the correct information.

Next, leaders provide vision. Organizations are the most adaptable and resilient at the edge of chaos. This is where there is rapid change, many interrelated decisions to quickly respond to developments. All of these interactions have the potential to dissolve into chaos. The leader’s vision becomes the reason that the organization exists and the basis for every decision that members make. In cases of conflicting decisions, members know to make a decision that maximizes achievement of the shared vision, instead of decisions made in the individual’s short term benefit. And, because each decision is made toward a single unifying vision, these decisions become mutually reinforcing, accelerating achievement at an exponential rate.

Finally, leaders grow leaders. In a fractal view of modern leadership, each sub organization should bear the same attributes as its parent organization. Each sub-leader should be a steward of the flow of information, provide a unifying vision complementary to the parent organization’s, and grow their own sub-leaders. Leaders train future leaders to make decisions. Sub-leaders have to be allowed to make decisions within their own organization and allow their own sub-leaders to make their own decisions. Decisions are delegated down to the leader who needs to make that decision, not to the commander who wants to make that decision.

Growing your leaders by teaching, sharing, and nurturing builds common shared experience, language, and trust between and among yourself and your subordinates. This reduces friction within your organization and allows your organization to understand itself and trust the other members of the organization. When your organization has a strong common understanding of the mission and trust in themselves and their partners, the enemy has a harder time driving wedges between the members of the organization.

The phrase “command and control” must be dropped from the leader’s lexicon. Words have history and power. The former command and control structures focused information and decision making onto one supposed superman in a rigid hierarchy and expected him to make infallible decisions with omniscient knowledge. These structures are being defeated, bankrupted, and destroyed as we speak.[6] Even when we remove the history of the words, there is power in them and in their implicit directive to centralize information and control. But the defeat of these systems in modern wars does not support the command and control structure. We should replace the phrase with something that reflects a greater understanding of the relationship between leaders and their organization; let’s call this idea of building effective, resilient, winning organizations…leadership.

Kurt Degerlund is an officer in the United States Air Force and a C-17 Aircraft Commander. He writes on leadership in the modern age, airpower, and international security. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, works on board a Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft between Battlefield Circulation missions. (U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O’Donald, NATO)


[1] John Boyd, “Organic Design For Command and Control,” accessed at http://www.dnipogo.org/boyd/pdf/c&c.pdf.

[2] Stanley McChrystal, T. Collins, D. Silverman, and C. Fussel, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (New York: Portfolio, 2015).

[3] Boyd, “Organic Design”.

[4] From Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1961), to grok is "to understand thoroughly through having empathy with." 

[5] Note the parallel with analysis and synthesis. John Boyd, "Destruction and Creation" accessed at http://www.goalsys.com/books/documents/DESTRUCTION_AND_CREATION.pdf.

[6] Stanley McChrystal, "It Takes a Network: The New Front Line of Modern Warfare," ForeignPolicy.com (21 Feb 2011), accesses at http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/02/21/it-takes-a-network/.