Centralized Command, Decentralized Execution

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity (Gen George S Patton, War as I Knew It)

At some point in your life, you’ve almost certainly been under the watchful, perpetual gaze of a micromanager. Maybe, like me, you worked as a lifeguard at the municipal pool during the summer when you were in high school for a manager (who was a college kid one year older than you) who hovered over you for every task, large and small—testing the chemicals, taking out the trash, applying zinc oxide to your nose. He wanted you to do things his way, and he was always there, offering helpful hints and tips throughout the day to ensure that you executed your tasks correctly (defined as: how he would do them if he were you). 

Unfortunately, it’s deceptively easy to develop a micromanaging style. 

Almost everyone starts out as a technician in their field—engineer, doctor, salesperson. Many stay a technician for their whole career, and that’s fantastic. Perfecting a craft while working within an organizational structure can be highly rewarding and lucrative personally. Additionally, highly competent technicians provide enormous value to society at large. Think of the benefit we all derive from career plumbers, architects, scientists, pilots, etc. etc. To be successful in life, you don’t have to be the owner or the boss. 

Others move up to management positions or strike out on their own to become their own boss. They are equally valuable in society, but for different reasons. 

Once you’ve moved up to a leadership position, you have to recognize that your primary job no longer revolves solely around performing a technician’s tasks. Instead, your new job is to ensure that the technicians who report to you are properly organized, trained, and equipped to do the job as well you did when you were in their shoes. 

You might have been a Cy Young award winning pitcher on a major league baseball team. Once you retire from playing and move to the coaching ranks, you’re no longer judged on how hard you throw a fastball. You’re judged on how much harder the pitchers on your staff throw theirs after you’ve trained them. 

You might have been the salesperson of the year in your company. Once you move up to manager of the sales department, you’re judged on whether or not you can train your force to be as good as you were. Their numbers are a reflection of your efficacy as a leader. 

You might have been a highly sought after hair stylist. Once you open your own salon, you’re judged on the quality of the client experience provided by the stylists who work for you. 

Knowing that you’re being judged on the performance of others, it’s only natural to want to sit down next to them and guide their every movement. You were successful. It makes sense that you want them to do it Exactly. The. Way. You. Did. It. 

To avoid this situation, the first step is to simply recognize that the technician’s skills that carried you to this point are NOT the same skills you need to make you an effective trainer, resource manager and leader. 

Rather, you must embrace the concept of centralized command and decentralized execution, the doctrine that drives the strategic decisions of the US Air Force. 

Centralized command in simple terms means that the bosses are responsible for making the strategic decisions for the organization. They decide the overarching objective that answers the question, why does this organization exist. After they decide the objective, they determine how to organize, train, and equip the force to achieve it. 

Decentralized command in simple terms means that the airmen who comprise the Air Force are responsible for using the allocated resources to manage the administrative tasks of the organization, train all of the members to be excellent at their tasks and physically acquire all of the equipment necessary to execute the mission. 

The boss makes the big decisions and the team makes it happen. 

That doesn’t mean that the team can go rogue and do whatever the heck they please. The biggest part of the boss’s “organize” piece is to create the framework—the policies, procedures, rules and standards—that members buy into when they join the team. 

The folks responsible for executing the operation are the ones who know best what works and what doesn’t because they’re out there in the field, on the floor and in the factory making it happen every day. 

To paraphrase what General Patton said, if you give them guidelines and a vision for what success looks like and then get out of their way, they’ll surprise you with the techniques they come up with to make it happen effectively and efficiently.













Jeffrey Orr