On Monday, I was able to hear GEN Mattis, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC think tank. In what one attendee called “vintage Mattis,” the general cracked jokes about his previous public speaking engagements, outlined upcoming “change and continuity” to our forces, and leaned upon history and philosophy to cement his points.
What stood out to me was his call for decentralization and his warning to never remove initiative from subordinates. He referenced the Battle of Trafalgar where Lord Nelson signaled “England expects every man to do his duty,” as a model for the freedom subordinates should be given to execute the mission. Mattis suggested that the principle of command and control should be reconsidered as command and feedback.
Of all people, Friedrich Hayek, an economist, fully explored what Lord Nelson and GEN Mattis teach. Hayek posed a (long-winded) question, which we should ask as we look to the future of warfighting, “Are [we] more likely to succeed [by] putting at the disposal of a single central authority all the knowledge which ought to be used (but which is initially dispersed among many different individuals) or [by] conveying to the individuals such additional knowledge as they need in order to enable them to fit their plans with those of others?” It may be dense, but it cuts to chase of the centralization v. decentralization issue.
From the lowliest plebe to the CNO, we all “possess unique information of which beneficial use might be made” due to our “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.”
What does this look like in the real world? Something like this:
There are nearly 30 Afghan soldiers here. Their senior mentor, Cpl. Sean P. Conroy, of Carmel, N.Y., is 25 years old. His assistant, Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Murray, of Fort Myers, Fla., is 21.
On the ground, far from the generals in Kabul and the policy makers in Washington, the hour-by-hour conduct of the war rests in part in the deeds of men this young, who have been given latitude to lead as their training and instincts guide them.
Each day they organize and walk Afghan Army patrols in the valley below, some of the most dangerous acreage in the world. Each night they participate in radio meetings with the American posts along the ridges, exchanging plans and intelligence, and plotting the counterinsurgency effort in the ancient villages below…War, like politics, is local. [Cpl. Conroy] reminded the Afghans that a platoon looked out for itself, and that he was the senior American on hand. [Taken from this New York Times article]
While decentralization is key for the Marine Corps, how can the Navy more effectively enjoy its benefits? Trust seems to be the key ingredient and I’m not sure sweeping rules such as “NO SLEEPING ALLOWED FROM XXXX TO YYYY NO MATTER WHAT” (touched on more here) foster an atmosphere of trust. GEN Petraeus has pronounced that we must “decentralize to the point of discomfort.” What do you think that looks like for the Navy?
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