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?

Face of Decentralization? (Image from NYT article)

Face of Decentralization? (Image from NYT article)

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Marine Corps, Navy, Policy

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  • Dee Illuminati

    The New Commandments of Change

    Here’s all that’s certain about the future: it holds profound and unpredictable change. But as smart CEOs have already learned, that’s all you need to know to prepare your company




    Change is here to stay

  • Grampa Bluewater

    What do you think that looks like for the Navy?

    A submarine according to “Blind Man’s Bluff”. One where the CO got the Legion of Merit and on NavSea 08’s short, black list.

    What to do. Hard training on what worked in the past. Report results upon return to port. Do your duty, always.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    I don’t think it is change, really, except for a return to what has been successful in American military lore since the birth of this nation. Initiative, innovation, bravery, and resourcefulness. The change will entail getting away from “peacetime” mindsets in everything from leadership to tactical decision-making.

    What it will likely include:

    -Studying of the technical and tactical aspects of the profession of arms and Naval service.

    -Trust in subordinates and a demand for performance and results.

    -A true understanding of how to manage risk and have the acorns to face it and tell the boss the truth.

    -Clearly stated commander’s intent.

    -Development of junior leaders and the willingness to let them learn and fail on your watch.

    -Enforcement of discipline and emphasis on the REAL important stuff.

    -Seeking and listening to meaningful input from juniors.


    What it likely won’t entail:

    -The DoD management Fad-o-the-Month.

    -Sexual harassment lectures and sensitivity training.

    -Zero-defect mentality.

    -The slow and cumbersome tactical planning process that includes “commander’s desired end-state” and other staff-college nonsense.

    -A 200-ship Navy.

    We tend to forget, but in the Second World War there were many Squadron COs, Battalion Commanders, and warship captains who were 25 years old. And in the teeth of battle, many Corporals (and junior!) commanded platoons, and Staff Sergeants, companies.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    *Burma Shave*

    Midn Withington, superb post. Outstanding analysis, and very thoughtful commentary. Gen Mattis is a warrior of the first magnitude, and I am proud to have served under him in First MarDiv.

    Well done.


  • Byron

    URR, you forgot something: You can’t see the path to the future if you don’t know where you were before. You have to study the history of the service, the good and the bad, to be able to grow and prepare for the next challenge. All service members should be reminded daily of the history of their chosen branch and unit. No truer words were ever said, than, “those who chose to forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You are certainly correct, I did neglect to specifically mention a study of the history and traditions of the Naval Service. But it is certainly a crucial component. Grazie.

  • Grampa Bluewater

    I wish I had written that. Nice. Very Nice. You too, URR.

  • Fouled Anchor

    MIDN Withington, great post. I enjoyed the piece from the NY Times article…nice to see our young troops getting some credit for the very good work they do.

    URR, excellent. You incorporated a lot of what I initially thought after reading the post…but put it better than I could have hoped to.

    The Marines mentioned in the NY Times article are probably becoming the rule and not the exception. We see more of this independence in young Marines than we do in Sailors (save for Sailors serving with the Marines). There is something intrinsic about a combat environment that leads to these responsibilities, abilities, and trust. Small units of all sorts see similar results. Since my entry onto active duty, there has been a decrease in authority from our junior Sailors, particularly Third Class Petty Officers. This is probably pervasive across the enlisted force as a whole. How many times have we heard or read a public announcement from a Coast Guard PO3 because he or she is the unit’s public affairs officer? The Navy would never give a PO3 that level of responsibility or accountability. I think the Navy can learn a lot from how the other services advance and train their junior personnel, and they results get.

  • One of the common complaints among junior service members is almost always about a lack of respect. They are often given huge responsibilities, such as being a plane captain, or otherwise put in charge of life or death situations, but then we turn around and treat them with little or no respect for the mickey mouse stuff.

    Can’t go on liberty without a deck of “safety” cards, a signed statement that you won’t screw up, honest! and a mandatory buddy system?

    How many other examples can you think of where we treat our junior members like children?

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Too many to mention in the few minutes ahead of morning formation… but there is also the potentially more telling aspect.

    To wit:

    That the worst thing we can think of is for a junior NCO or Officer to get into a fight out in town while blowing off some steam from seven consecutive 80-hour work weeks. Because this might get us, the middle and senior leadership the hairy eyeball from some General/Flag Officer or Chief of Staff, we do such silly and insulting things as the “safety cards” and endless formations dispensing pseudo-parental advice about staying out of trouble.

    The result is often that we promote the “most well-behaved” who have never been in any kind of trouble, rather than the best, most competent, most aggressive leaders. The tough, forceful junior leader is de facto discouraged from being so, even though that is precisely what is required to lead in combat.

    And NO, I am not talking about the perpetual miscreant who is in trouble three times a week. They don’t lead, either.

    It is the peacetime CYA “don’t screw up” evaluation system, and hardly conducive to having the cream rise to the top. And it carries over to daily duties, too (think zero-defects!).

    I will say the USMC has had a bit of a catharsis regarding such, with so many young veterans with loads of combat experience. Thank goodness.

    The Navy will have to follow suit as a part of a shift in leadership culture. If not, they’ll never get there.