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I had the privilege of commanding at three levels in the Army – troop (twice!), squadron, and regiment. I’ve also observed senior officers in command and staff appointments over sixteen years. That’s taught me a few things about the commander’s critical role: that of decision making. Here’s what I learned.
As commanders, our most important role is making wise, well-informed decisions that produce the desired results. Everyone in your unit will make dozens of decisions during a working day, though most will be trivial. As a commander, the decisions you make will be far more consequential. For the commanders, the significance and consequences of decisions are magnified because they influence the lives and livelihoods of others. In the end, the commander’s decision-making will determine high performance or mediocrity, death, or glory.
Whether or not it is clear to you, this is likely what you were looking for when you joined the Officer corps or sought a command position in the ranks. In that critical or ambiguous moment, you want to be the person to whom everyone looks to make the consequential and perhaps irreversible choice that might determine the fate of those around you. It’s therefore in all our interests to ‘sharpen our decision-making blade’.
The overarching lesson I’ve learnt about decision making is that decision making has two parts – typically, we only appreciate the first part. The first and obvious part is the quality of the decision (the analytical part). The second is how it is implemented (the degree to which people understand and support the decision). Both must be addressed for the decision to lead to successful outcomes.
Decision making part 1 – the analytical part
First, the analytical part is the easy bit because it can be described as a set of considerations to be made to varying degrees of thoroughness depending on the time and criticality of the decision. The analytical part of the decision should take account of the following:
Consider: is this my decision to make?
In a military context, especially an operational one, understand the command relationships in play and work within them. I’ve floundered before when I assumed I ‘owned’ someone or something and could therefore decide its fate, only to find out later that ownership sat well above me. Check. Where formal command relationships are not a factor, consider whether you should delegate the decision to someone else. On knotty matters, people will typically push decision making upwards. Don’t be afraid to push it back down if you feel you can control the consequence of the decision turning out badly.
Understand the timeline
Ask yourself, ‘When do I have to decide by and can I set a conditions-based decision point and delay?’ People will typically want a decision now, but only because that makes it easier for them. Don’t be backed into a corner if you can set a conditions-based DP and decide later without penalty.
Understand the higher purpose
Be guided by the relevant higher purpose, and let this be your north star. For example, in the case of a soldier failing CDT, I often had to remind myself that my decision on retention or discharge should be guided by aligning words and actions and showing commitment to the Army’s drugs policy, rather than only looking out for the needs of the soldier. Equally, in an operational setting, if not sure how to act, refer to the unifying purpose of your mission: something that transcends time and is more significant than you or any single individual or group. This will likely help you get to the issue’s essence to define it in its most basic terms.
Understand the policy or rules
No matter what decision you are making, there will likely be some relevant policy to help you decide. I am still amazed by how much policy there is, typically in the form of DINs, JSPs and AGAIs. Yes, there might be too much of it to get our arms around, but the individual items are good. Use the experts around you to dig them out and briefly give you the key points.
Understand ‘right’ versus ‘right decisions’
Be comfortable that most of the decisions you are asked to make are difficult. If they were easy, someone else would have decided already. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact you are typically required to make ‘right versus right’ decisions: do you safeguard the long term or short term; deliver justice or mercy; prioritise work or family; prioritise the mission or go easy on your people, take risks or play safe? On any given decision, you’ll likely have to choose between these imperatives, its not easy.: be guided by the higher purpose, reflect on your decisions, allow yourself to be changed by their outcomes and try to achieve balance over the long term. For example, if you chose work over family last time, do differently next time.
Write down the arguments and synthesise
It can help to write down the problem and factors. Sometimes I’ve had a decision in mind before doing this, but the rigour of writing down the elements in clear terms has resulted in me changing my mind. Alternatively, take a stance on the issue and write it in the centre of your whiteboard, e.g. ‘cancel the exercise’. Then on the left of that, write down the factors that support this decision, e.g. create time for MATTs training, ease the pressure on the Echelon. On the other side, write down the factors that oppose that stance, e.g. combat engineer atrophy, no build for TL C event. Then weight the factors and add up the scores on each side. Sometimes this process ends inconclusively, but typically, it takes me closer to a decision and gives me the basis for verbalising my justification to others.Alternatively, simply think out loud with someone. As a CO I’d regularly walk into the Adjutant’s office and ‘think out loud in his direction’. This did nothing for his productivity, but it certainly helped me order my thinking.
Decision making part 2 – Implementation
Next, convert your decision into action. Sometimes this is simple and momentary and other times the implementation turns out to be by far the most challenging part. Here is some guidance on getting the implementation right.
As commanders, almost all decisions we make will be implemented by others. For your decision to be implemented it needs the support and understanding of those who will do it. Wherever possible, we must allow others to participate in our decision making. Participative decision making is not just a matter of decision quality but also of ensuring that the decision will have the necessary support and commitment for its effective implementation. Participative decision making can also provide a training ground in which people can think through the implications of decisions in anticipation of a later time when they may be responsible for making them.
In a study on decision making, Vicktor Vroom defines a framework for helping us to ‘decide how to decide’: should you decide by yourself, consult individually, consult a group, facilitate a decision which is made by others, or delegate completely. He suggests that one should only decide in isolation when: you have the best knowledge of the matter; people will commit even when not involved in the decision, time is critical, and referring to others is difficult or impossible. How often, other than emergencies, are these conditions met? By this argument, most of our decisions should be consultative or delegated entirely. My experience has taught me that for decisions that are elevated to me and where I judge it is for me to decide, a crucial part of my process is to frame it clearly, then get the right people together to consult, and then decide. Consider whether you consult or delegate often enough.
This imperative to involve others is not intended to absolve the commander from the consequences of the decision. Ultimately, if you deem it inappropriate to delegate, it must be you who decides after consultation with others. Consult with others, decide alone.
Explain the decision
I found that where I have made the effort of explaining the logic behind my decision to those who are affected, ideally face to face, then I get the buy-in or broader understanding I need. When I changed the regimental battle rhythm (with correct participation in the decision), I was surprised at how much resistance there was in some quarters. When I changed it again sometime later, this time fully explaining my decision to my command team and the regiment, I got much better buy-in. Despite the practical challenges of doing so, know that you owe an explanation to everyone affected by your decisions.
Stay involved during execution
As well as deciding, your role is to support others in implementation and remove blockers. This often requires setting milestones, and asking for and listening to feedback from the implementation team and the ‘recipients’ of your decision. If your decision requires everyone to change behaviours or routines, then ensure you role model them too. The extent to which you need to stay involved differs depending on the decision. Typically, if you are trying to instigate a change that requires many people to modify their work or behaviour in some way, you’ll need to stay closely involved. To an extent, this limits the number of these change projects you can run concurrently.
Review your decisions
Don’t fall in love with your decisions. Everything is fluid, and context changes. As a benchmark, assume that if 60% of your decisions turn out to be ‘right’ with hindsight, that’s a good hit rate. Focus on the process not the outcomes – if you can look back and know that you covered off many of the points above when making the decision, you got the process right, and the hand of fate or bad luck confounded you. Take the necessary lessons, don’t be shy to admit fault if you find it, and move forward positively.
The loneliness of command
The responsibility that comes with command is a great privilege, but there is a necessary burden of leading people, making decisions and doing the right thing. This burden is commonly termed the loneliness of command. I felt it keenly when in command positions and, strangely, it has been almost non-existent in the staff posts. Something about my command roles has been more visceral and demanding than my staff jobs.
When describing the ‘loneliness of command’, leaders typically describe a feeling of loneliness as they pondered some critical decision. In my view, the loneliness of command refers to the fact that for some decisions, usually the most difficult, it is only you as the commander who can decide. For me the feeling has been distinctive, but it’s felt more like ‘the weight of command’ rather than loneliness. I recently felt this weight when trying to decide on the correct posture on COVID-19 dispersal, managing poor performance, placing people in Regimental orders of merit, and deciding on guilt and sanctions in major discipline cases. Others will have had far more critical and difficult decisions than me, but I argue that the feeling of a weight on one’s shoulders is the same. I’ve been helped by the fact I was surrounded by advisors whom I trusted. As the point of decision approaches, the weight can become very heavy. Still, in my experience, from the moment of decision onwards, if you’ve followed the advice above, the weight will quickly lift, and it will be taken ably by those who will implement it for you.
Find your pressure release valve
This decision-making responsibility is tough, and there will be bad days. When things have gone poorly or when the pressure is high, I always kept a pressure release valve close at hand. For me, when on operations, this was going for a long run or walk, and non-operationally it was mountain biking. Whilst in command of a regiment, I felt significantly re-energised after a hairy session on my bike, ‘sending it’ in my local woods. What is your passion? If you don’t have one, rekindle or find one and do it as often as the pressure requires you to.
As I reflect on my time in command, it’s the decision-making aspect of it I think about most. That’s when I made a difference. Here I have described a procedural take on decision making that considers both the analytical part and the implementation. It may jar with those who prefer following intuition. I believe there is still a role for gut feel in the above process, which must be used to make up for inevitable information gaps. But for the big decisions, the scope of the gut feel element should be minimised unless you are in an emergency.
As for the participative approach, remember there still comes a moment when you, and only you, make the decision and you’ll likely do this alone once you’ve consulted. And like all good leaders, you will shine praise on others when your decisions turn out well, and take all the blame when they do not.
As for the weight of command, command is about leading a life less ordinary; it’s like riding a roller coaster, it sometimes takes your breath away but it’s in those moments that we feel most alive. Command becomes exponentially more challenging as we move upwards, but also more rewarding. So, keep pushing for that next level of command. Work hard, learn and back yourself.
Lt Col Simon Graham
Over the course of twenty years, Lt Col Simon Graham has commanded at troop, squadron and unit level, and as a staff officer, worked in 2-star and 4-star headquarters, LWC, DE&S and MOD Main Building. During his service with the Army he has gained an MSc in Battlespace Technology and an MBA. He has worked on various change programmes including equipment programmes, the Field Army Empowerment Programme and Programme Castle. He was a member of the first cohort of the Army Advanced Development Programme and is a fellow of the Forward Institute leadership programme.