I’m continuing this week with my list of success principles that are based on military principles of war. The final three I’ll be exploring over the next three days are American principles. They are valid for everyone, but in the US these principles get special treatment.

The principle of unity of command stems from the need to ensure that there is a single ‘chain of command’ from the highest levels of authority in a country, all the way down to the soldier in his foxhole (or on patrol). The idea is simple. A leader can have more than one follower, but no individual should have more than one person from whom they take definitive orders. This ensures that there is a clear chain of authority, responsibility, and accountability at all levels of the organization. This is to ensure clarity of direction and accountability for decisions, orders, and actions.

Unfortunately, in business and other civilian organizations this principle is not often applied. We hear of consensus decision-making and leadership by committee instead of a single ‘buck-stops-here’ authority. I often ask employees in organizations I’m consulting for if they can definitively assert who their boss is and what his or her responsibilities and authority are. The most frequent response is a look of bewilderment. Sometimes I’ll here, “That’s not the way it works here; we all decide and act together.” Right. In business, there is always a boss, but the fact that people can’t tell exactly who it is for any particular project or functional area has me thinking that most employees are surprised when they find out that there really is a chain of authority, sometimes to their detriment.

In the public sector, the problem is even worse. Senior managers are obsessed about ‘consultative’ decision-making and reaching consensus. When you ask “Who is in charge here?” you’re just as likely to hear whistling and get embarassed shrugs as a vague answer similar to the one above: “That’s not how we work around here. We’re all in this boat together and no one is really ‘in charge.'”

Just because there is a clear chain of authority and decision-making, it doesn’t mean that managers and supervisors can’t and shouldn’t consult their subordinates, peers, and superiors. Just because there is really someone in charge, it doesn’t mean there has to be an atmosphere of authoritarian dictatorship.

By all means, consult, seek advice, discuss, and debate, but don’t tell me there is no one really in charge. There has to be for there to be a single chain of authority and accountability.

© 2012 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

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