In defence of Command and Control


I’m told that at one point in time Every breath you take by The Police was one of the most popular choices by couples for their wedding dance.  When I heard that, I found myself wondering if any of them deliberately chose it because it’s a song about an obsessive stalker that Sting, the band’s frontman, wrote after separating from his wife and who regards its messages of sadistic jealousy and controlling possession as (in his own words) nasty and evil.  Or maybe they chose it just because they liked the tune…

So while we’re on the topic of misunderstandings, the term “Command and Control” seems to be copping a bit these days.  I’ve read more than a few blog posts and one or two books where  the term gets used as a pejorative to describe the actions of what sounds like the manager from hell who’s on a mission to eradicate initiative and morale as sworn enemies of the status quo. Said managers tend to obsess over inputs (if you’re not at your desk you’re clearly slacking), punish mistakes severely (there goes initiative out the window) and then complain that they’re the only ones capable of making decisions without screwing things up (yup, in their world they probably are).  

It’s fair to say that what I’m describing is one approach to the concepts of command and control, but it’s not the only one and I'd suggest it has very limited utility.

So anyhow, since it’s a term borrowed from the military, let me explain how, when Command and Control are done right, it can actually foster initiative, develop sound judgement and help people do the right thing on a difficult day without necessarily having to run back to their boss for a decision.

First of all let’s start with Command - as we'll see later, Control is actually a subset of it. 

It’s a military term that refers to the authority and responsibility of an individual to effectively employ the resources available to them for the accomplishment of assigned missions.  It also includes responsibility for the welfare, morale and discipline of assigned personnel.

So far, no references to screaming at hapless employees or pushups as punishment for being a few seconds late to a meeting, although that last one perhaps has some merit...

Maybe the problem is that there’s no immediate equivalent for Command in the civilian world beyond, perhaps, management which is in itself another emotion-laden word that for many implies a grey, faceless, emotionless drone implementing “policy” while the technicolor leader flies in the face of policy and gets shit done before riding off into the sunset.  With this in mind perhaps examining the three components of command, and their interdependencies, might offer some insight as to how closely it mirrors what needs to happen in any organisation that wants to thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous operating environment.

Decision Making

Good judgement is often the product of experience and experience is often the product of poor decisions

Making timely and effective decisions is the ultimate task of a leader at any level of an organisation and central to this is knowing who “owns the call” under any given set of circumstances.

In the military, actually in any organisation for that matter, making a bad decision is rarely a good thing and something that gets widely celebrated but where the military differ from most businesses is that it IS possible to commit a more serious crime than a bad decision; and that’s to not make any decision at all when it’s clearly your call.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who's encountered individuals in senior management roles who have raised “passing the buck upwards” to something approaching an art form.

Decision-making is essentially the process by which we move from the realisation that something needs to be done to thinking about what could be done and then, after due consideration of the options, to determining what is to be done about a given situation.

Despite numerous attempts by scholars to do so, the ability to instinctively identify and exploit fleeting opportunities isn’t something that can be folded neatly into a 5-step process or a system without losing much of the essence of what it takes to make a difficult decision in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment.  It requires intelligence, insight and intuition, coupled with a willingness to act in the face of incomplete information and then reflect honestly on the results.


If decision-making is arriving at a plan for what is to be done and control is about making sure it  gets done, leadership is about shaping how it’s done

Leadership is the realm of influencing the behaviours of both ourselves and others and the manner in which it’s exercised has a massive effect on the other two domains.  An organisation where professional competence is seen as a point of pride and where leaders trust their people and both empower and expect them to exercise their initiative will handle an unexpected situation or change in the environment very differently to one where front line workers are constrained on all sides by rules and policy and where strict compliance with policy is non-negotiable and where mistakes and transgressions, no matter how well-intentioned, are usually career-affecting.  Managers in the latter organisations typically complain that they’re surrounded by idiots and why is it that they’re the only ones that can make a simple decision whereas those in the former will generally ask questions like what can you tell me about the situation, what don’t you know yet and what do you think we should do about it?

The central currency of leadership is trust and the reality is that it’s something that takes a great deal of time and focus, not to mention a certain amount of risk, to build and yet can be destroyed in an instant. 

Much has been written about leadership style - are you a servant leader, a fierce leader, a laissez-faire leader, a transactional one or even a transformational one?  Some of the best leaders I ever served with would probably just laugh at the question and tell you that they just do what the situation, the mission and the team needs at the time - whether that's a kick up the ass or a sit-down and chat over a coffee to sort out a problem.  The best leaders I know have, through hard work, experience and (most importantly) reflection, developed a range of styles and honed their ability to bring the most appropriate one to the fore at any given moment.


Without control, we’re flying blind and using hope as a navigation system  

The control component of command is where decisions get turned into purposeful actions, where action is coordinated in space and time and where actual progress is tracked against intended outcomes.  A useful comparison is the various mechanisms that contribute to travelling from point A to point B in a car.   The planning component is aware of speed limits, road rules and, to a point, current road conditions and if the world remained unchanged from what it was or mirrored how we projected it would be then it would, in theory, be possible to travel all the way to point B having never looked up from the dashboard.  All we’d need, besides the information I mentioned earlier, would be an accurate map from which to plan the journey and then a decent compass, clock and speedometer would be all we need to make the journey and arrive on schedule as we predicted. 

Of course, it’s a ridiculous concept - roadworks, other traffic and last-minute requests to divert to point C on the way all serve to render any such proscriptive approach to the journey all but useless and that’s where the control function becomes so critical.

The control function of command is concerned with getting what needs to be done, done and within the budget of allocated resources.

If leadership and decision-making are all about unleashing initiative and exploiting opportunities, control is about making sure that the opportunities we exploit are the right ones and that initiative is pointed in the right direction without being overly constrained and part of the art of leadership recognises that some people in certain circumstances need, and in many cases want, more control measures in place even if just initially.

Putting it all together

Clearly there are many approaches to each of these three dimensions of Command and a myriad of tools and techniques but which is best?  Of course, like all good rhetorical questions, the answer is that it depends.  But on what?

It depends on what your overall business objective is, what the operating environment is and how you intend to achieve your objective given the challenges posed by the environment.

Once you’ve got clear on that, ask yourself a few simple questions.

Imagine that your subordinates have hit an unexpected situation - either a threat to the plan or an opportunity - that you hadn’t given them any instructions for and you’re not immediately available or contactable.  In other words they’re faced with a decision they haven’t been primed for.

What would they do?

  • Would they make sound and timely decisions in line with their authority and responsibility? (Decision making)
  • Would they act on those decisions instinctively without waiting to be told? (Leadership)
  • Would those decisions be consistent with your overall plan? (Control)

If you answered no to any of them, then the command function in brackets is possibly the one to start looking at first.

Adam O'Donnell1 Comment