Do you Command or Control?

Command and Control

Command and control are words to describe systems of leadership and management in the military sphere, but are appropriate, and already unknowingly exist in many civilian organisations. Unfortunately, as with many military ideals/methods/concepts, they can be mixed up or misinterpreted, often because the mix up does not result in life or death.

Just as Leadership and Management are used synonymously with each other, yet mean something very different (arguably that Management is a system to drive process/es, whereas Leadership is a methodology that affects the behaviours of people) so are Command and Control:

Command is the ability to influence or guide another member of staff to do something and empower them to exercise their own sound ethical judgement based against well understood and thought through rules or constraints. It requires trust between the parties, which in turn enables increased speed of decision making and therefore business activity. Achieving this (trust) requires training and living/working/operating by a methodology that allows delegation of responsibility and subsequent development of sound courses of action (decisions).

Control is a set of constraints that make staff operate or behave in a certain way by limiting their freedom of action and decision making. It allows individuals to act without need of them to add any of their own thought, insights or experience (value) to the action they are to perform.  Control has developed from the lessons learnt by the business over the time of operation. It is a system to direct, rule or regulate behaviour and does not support individual thought or decision making. It shapes how an organisation manages its staff. It is the business’s ‘laws’ that guide or direct staff actions and decisions.

Command enables staff at all levels to be agile, adapt to the situation and have the freedom to make decisions within the confines of sound and well understood business constraints (such as limitations of spend, or time taken to complete a project). These are controls that guide employees in their decision making must be universally understood throughout the staff as failure to do so will ensure expensive mistakes happen…and potentially repeat themselves.  

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Organisations that observe and demonstrate command rest on the ability of leaders to trust their staff to work within the controls they have established and embedded in the business. These controls are often more successful if developed collaboratively with staff. Trust in doing the right thing is developed by engendering a common ethos and ‘language’ that all staff ‘live’ by. 

However, there must be rewards (carrots) and consequences (sticks) to staff behaviour in order to assist organisations to engender trust so that they can be agile and empower command at all levels. For example, working outside of the business constraints such as capital expenditure. A figurative punishment of ‘sitting on the naughty stair’ (i.e, performance management with little or no financial, or career impact) has been shown not to work. However, if the ‘step’ is uncomfortable enough (figuratively ‘spiked’) then it can. An example of this would be to removal of a member of staff from a promotion course, or a delay to a financial increment until the behaviour has realigned to the business’s controls. Without the ability to account for everyone’s actions, the environment that command and delegation afford cannot be achieved, as trust is not maintained.

A balance between command and control is therefore key. A business will not survive if it is overly controlling and does not allow its staff to make decisions, but will also fail if there are no controls limiting the freedom to decide courses of action.

Control is a function of rules, time and bandwidth (behavioural and technological constraints to ensure all parties do as directed), whereas command is a function of moral trusts, fidelity, and agility. Organisations have a choice to make; provide the appropriate rules and quantitative technological bandwidth necessary to have the level of command desired, or act more directively and reduce freedom of decision making and therefore level of agility. Command, therefore, is more associated with culture, and control with technology.

With this in mind I hope you can now understand the unique differences between the two and when to be one more than the other, but most importantly, why you require both elements to have successful leadership in your business.

Scott Howe

Spiique Leader