Sergeants Run The Army, Generals Run The War.

Unique Leadership Axiom: Day-To-Day Life is a local affair, but over the long haul the motivating decisions are made at the top.

While we were making breakfast today the phone rang. It was an invitation to come to a meeting with Andy Harris who represents us in the House of Representatives. Obviously he thinks politics is local. When I was a branch chief at Aberdeen Proving Ground I held branch meetings. That was local management. When I was a young lieutenant assigned to Edwards Air Force Base, the major held office meetings. That was local leadership. Localizing leadership simplifies decisions.

With the exception of Andy Harris’, all of these meetings had only a few people present. All of these meetings had a leader and that leader had a limited span of control, meaning the number of people with whom a leader can deal effectively.

The army officer corps has ten ranks, from 2nd Lieutenant to Four Star General. The enlisted ranks are nine in number. There are seventeen traditional branches of service within the army, and dozens of Military Occupational Specialties (MOS). With this mixture of entities, how does the military get anything done? How can it not fall into chaos?

Before answering that question let us talk about the world in which we live. My wife, the daughter of two biology teachers, sees human organizations in the world as being organic in nature. So for her, organizations are born, grow, get diseased or elderly, and die.

My education was in the mathematics of non-linear systems. I see organizations as both self-similar and fractal at all levels of leadership. This means that at each level of magnification, the object appears identical to the level above.  For organizations this means that at each level, the management structure is the same.

You may be familiar with a Song titled “Dry Bones”.

… the toe bone connected
to the foot bone,
and the foot bone connected
to the ankle bone,
and the ankle bone connected
to the leg bone….

For me this song represents a symbiotic relationship between my outlook and that of my wife. Most organic living things, when viewed at the right level of magnification, appear to be fractal in nature. The fractal nature of the Army organization is also revealed by magnification, i.e., focusing on each command level separately. Let’s start at the top. The fractal structure of the army has eight levels. All of them have two to five subordinates.

  • Field Army: 2-5 Corps
  • Corps: 2-5 Divisions
  • Division: 3 Brigades
  • Brigade: 3-5 Battalions
  • Battalion: 3-5 Companies
  • Company: 3-4 Platoons
  • Platoon: 3-4 Squads
  • Squad: 4-10 Soldiers

At every level of magnification you see the same organization chart. At each of these structural levels of the army the same rules of leadership apply.

That is why I say the army organization is fractal in its nature.

Fractal organizations are potentially subject to the same behaviors as all non-linear systems: Chaotic Dynamics. When understood and courageously led, they are overwhelmingly powerful; misunderstood and weakly led, they fall into Chaos!

At the top of powerful organizations, broad goals are established. Make no mistake; there is absolute certainty about the specifics of these goals. At the very top of the army Generals issue the orders that specify the strategy to win the war. The leader at each successive level transforms those orders into the driving force that wins. At the combat level fighting takes place under the direction of a noncom, a Sergeant. Here again the goals are very specific: win or die.

In nature winning organisms are fractal in structure. When a complex organization like the army has a fractal structure and is motivated by powerful leadership at all levels, it projects power, it wins! It does not fall into chaos. It accomplishes its mission.

Leadership Focus: Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done.
  5. Be careful whom you choose.
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s decisions. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share Credit.

10. Remain calm. Be kind.

11. Have a vision. Be demanding.

12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.

13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

My Take:

Thank God: at each level of the United States military, leaders totally embrace the unifying passion for liberty that unites us in this terribly complex world.

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4 Responses to Sergeants Run The Army, Generals Run The War.

  1. Dear Ben:
    Interesting post: I like the way you’re building a bridge between the worlds of the military and the broader worlds of businesses, associations, and government.

    I look forward to future posts on the topic.

    BTW, do you have a citation for Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership?

  2. Dan says:

    I’m currently a business student. It’s remarkable how the breakdown of a firm so closely mirrors the leadership structure of the military, from CEO down to the lowest level of manager. I wouldn’t be surprised if many aspects of that structure as management has evolved over the decades were directly copied from the military.

    • Dan

      I have been thinking about those similarities and also differences for some time. The real question is: Does the similarity of organization charts mean similarity of organizational function?

      I shall be adding a new class of posts discussing this questions. I hope that you will add your opinion to those posts.

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