Contributor: Paul has 14 years of experience at Regimental Duty and on the Staff.

“There followed a classical situation in which a commander of a lower formation could not tell his superiors they were talking through their hats.”

The quote above refers to the battle to capture Coriano, as part of Op OLIVE, the Allied effort to breach the German Gothic line in Italy.  Brigadier Goodbody, the Allied commander at the time, was unable to question his superiors, who possessed incorrect information on how the battle was unfolding, leading to a huge loss of life and time.  Unlike his superiors, Brigadier Goodbody was not a veteran of the First World War and had significantly less operational experience. Brigadier Goodbody was, however, in a better position to see the level of German resistance that was unfolding. Despite his protests, he was ordered to continue with an attack that subsequently failed, leading to unnecessary loss of life and arguably an additional winter in Italy.  This is just one example of how, at every level of command it can be difficult to question your superiors. If our focus is to deliver operational success as swiftly and efficiently as possible, every brain on the team needs to be engaged.  Essential to this is truthful communication between commanders and their subordinates.

Leaders must create a culture in which their subordinates can question them when they have concerns or perceive problems.  It is often those not in a position of leadership who can most readily identify risks, threats and issues, which if resolved and dealt with appropriately can enhance the likelihood of successful outcomes.  A CO at Regimental Duty who always encourages subalterns to challenge upwards, will have to deal with the angst and frustration that may create, but will also benefit from having Subalterns who are engaged, who think critically about problems and may provide the sort of innovation which will generate solutions. Frank and honest communication between Commander and Subordinate will also generate Trust and Mutual Understanding, key principles of Mission Command.

Questioning the direction and decision making of a superior can be a daunting prospect and there are numerous barriers to doing so.  Your superiors are older, they have served longer, and will likely have experience from previous operations or postings.  They are also protected and supported by a staff with access to broad and varied sources of information, intelligence and thinking.  Plus, they likely write your report or have a significant impact on the direction of your career.

These factors, if manifested within a toxic culture, can suppress a subordinate’s will to think critically and beyond that which is told to them.  This is counter-productive and runs contrary to what we know today about the conditions required for operational success in a complex multivariate environment.  Whilst conflict has always been and remains complicated, the approach tends to be the achievement of many simple goals, but contested by friction from all angles.  Critical thinking, innovative action and sound decision making are key capabilities that unlock the routes to success, meaning that in some, if not many circumstances, the subordinate is going to be in a better position than the commander to make sense of the situation.  They may have access to different, more current and perhaps more accurate information.  As a commander, it can be difficult to understand that we may not have the answers and to receive criticism from our subordinates.  We rightly trust our own judgement, which was learned through hard-won experience.  We may have subordinates who lack our operational understanding and who haven’t served as long. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong.  In fact, they may have the freshness and objectivity that we lack and could in fact have the answers we are searching for.  But they will only volunteer them when the command culture in a unit or staff is open and permissive.  We must create a culture where those we lead can question us constructively and contribute fully to operational success.  We must guard against dismissing a questioning subordinate.  There is peril here; we can perpetuate a culture where subordinates won’t question what they are told and ultimately, this will lead us as commanders into potentially dangerous territory. Tired and stressed, faced with multiple priorities and demands to consider, commanders (and their staff) are prone to miss key bits of information or crucial avenues of action.  They may even surrender to group think or lean into their own unconscious bias.

Practically, how can leaders create the right culture?

Although the Brigadier Goodbody example seems far away, there are parallels we can draw today. The sub-unit and unit commanders for the next conflict, will have experience from the last, but their subordinates may not. Subordinates will be acutely aware that they don’t have this experience, so leaders must walk a tightrope between fostering an environment where teams and individuals are free to question, but where adherence to orders and loyalty to the chain of command is maintained. They should wear criticism well, and be prepared not to take it personally; make this an opportunity to demonstrate intelligent leadership.  Where you can increase time and scope for alternative approaches; ‘Red Teaming’ during the development of Courses of Action is a good example.  Take an honest account of the pitfalls and risks, examine them and allow your team to do this.  Setting a war-game as a central step towards developing your plan and remembering that the aim of the wargame is not to win, but to identify weaknesses in the plan and enhance it are key.  Situate your talent at the heart of the perceived adversarial thinking, how they may react to your plan is more important than much else, it enables contingency planning and helps us to anticipate the ‘what if’s’.


The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to hi@wavellroom.com

[/media-credit] Officer Cadets from Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) on Exercise Dynamic Victory

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6 Comments on "Speaking Truth to Power; why is it so hard to tell the boss they are wrong?"

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John Kiszely
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What should we read into the fact that the author has chosen not to give his/her full name?

William Hearnshaw
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Potentially because the author does not believe his superiors would share his view.

John Kiszely
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Nicely put!

Ru Streatfeild
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This is not an issue unique to the British Army. Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking focuses on medical professionals and the terrifying cost in human life from both failing to question authority and learn from mistakes. We must think seriously about incentivising truthful communication between subordinates and commanders.

ComdETS(N)
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It’s human nature that no one wants to appear wrong – add in the authority that being the Boss brings and one magnifies the feeling that the leader must be right on both sides of the Comd relationship. That said, it is virtually impossible to be right every time so a leader must create a culture where they value honest and constructive input. The way to do this, in my book, is to tell your folk you value their input and when someone takes that bold step and questions your logic/plan etc – thank them, consider their input and provide… Read more »
Garry
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Enjoyed this, and Ru’s wider perspective through Mathew Syed’s writings. It could be argued the issues in the post have been felt for many years (does not make it right) and there are many in the past who have also been frustrated. The difference today is that they are limiting the ability of the Army to be truly agile in a networked society. The practical suggestions are well made and I wonder whether it is also time to look at whether we need to re-teach/experience some truly servant leadership techniques and practices; which are more aligned to the networked society… Read more »
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