Recently, the U.S. Armed Forces have been rocked by the case of chief petty officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL charged with multiple war crimes but ultimately convicted of one lesser charge. There’s been shock over the extraordinary involvement of commander-in-chief President Trump in the military justice system and his use of public tweets to give orders; the stunningly open conflict between him and key military leaders; and the secretary of defense’s firing of the secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, for subverting the chain of command by negotiating with the White House directly.
The business world should take heed. There’s a lesson in this military tempest for leaders of any large institution looking to ensure their ranks of diverse employees work together productively. The takeaway? Too often leaders fail their organizations by inserting themselves along the chain of command or escalating a confrontation quickly and openly.
The career of John Shalikashvili is illustrative. This U.S. Army general led some of the largest and most complex organizations in the world. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1993-1997), he sat atop all branches of the U.S. military, then totaling 1.7 million active-duty personnel. As SACEUR, the military head of NATO (1992-1993), he directed a mind-boggling 2 million troops, 2,300 tanks and 5,200 warplanes from 16 countries.
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A firm believer in respecting the chain of command, Shalikashvili knew a leader must refrain from stepping outside the parameters of his or her own position. As chairman he faced his own “Gallagher moments,” including the multiple sexual assaults at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996 and the adultery case of B-52 pilot Lt. Kelly Flinn in 1997. Facing criticism for not publicly intervening to address these problems himself, he replied: “We have thousands of young officers serving in the Armed Forces”; two cases “did not mean the chain of command had somehow self-destructed.”
“Gen. Shalikashvili did not major in minor affairs,” confirmed John Lee, a command sergeant major when Shalikashvili led the 9th Infantry Division as a two-star general. “He focused on the higher-order role that a division commander should take on: how to resource, equip and train a multi-thousand man division.”
If there ever was a failure of leadership below him, Shalikashvili believed the chain of command generally worked best when guidance was delivered in a low-key manner. “Normally one can fear the visit by a division commander,” Lee continued, but Shalikashvili “did not jump in and start making loud and public corrections. He never yelled, degraded or belittled… He’d ask provoking, open-ended questions and he was okay with silences, wouldn’t jump in to provide the answer.”
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When communicating up the chain of command Shalikashvili was similarly known for delivering honest advice diplomatically and discreetly. As a three star, he served as the deputy to four-star general Butch Saint, his explosive boss at U.S. Army Europe, a man who would readily and bluntly declare “I make the decisions.” Yet, as one subordinate awed, “‘Shalikashvili could turn him 178 degrees without ever actually disagreeing with him.” Even Saint himself appreciated that “Shalikashvili was not looking for the limelight, but if asked would offer candid thoughts.”
Shalikashvili was just as discreet as chairman. “Many wanted Shalikashvili to stand up to Clinton,” recalled Lt. Col. Brian Haig, his speechwriter at the time, but “if Shalikashvili didn’t agree with Clinton, only a very small core of people knew Shalikashvili’s real thoughts.” The president himself praised the general because “he never minced words, he never postured or pulled punches.”
Going hand-in-hand with the formal chain of command is a second, more subtle leadership tool the military calls “command climate”: the norms of behavior that radiate downward from an organization’s leadership via the demonstration effect.
“An officer can judge character in how the boss runs meetings, asks questions, things they say they want done,” explained Major Ruth Collins, the executive officer to Saint’s chief of staff at USAREUR, echoing common sentiment. “And there are many grey areas, and that is where you can evaluate how he responds—in his actions, voice and words.” “With some bosses, many actually, one can quickly tell if they are just concerned with looking good as quickly as possible. Shalikashvili never did. He always had integrity and high standards. He taught by example. I felt Shali would never want me to do anything untoward.”
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Respect for the chain of command and its follow-on principle of command climate are not simply feel-good pop psychology. Based in large part on these principles, Shalikashvili achieved astonishing career successes in leading diverse groups of people to find productive consensus on some of the world’s thorniest problems.
This was on spectacular display during Operation Provide Comfort, an unprecedented ad hoc humanitarian mission to rescue over 500,000 Kurds suddenly trapped in the mountains along the Turkish-Iraqi border in the wake of Gulf War I. Without any pre-existing agreements to provide institutional structure, the U.S. Army general was put in charge of some 21,700 service members from 13 nations as well as personnel from over 50 private organizations—many of whom had never worked together and even had outright distrust of each other. Yet based in large part on his respect for not majoring in minor affairs as well as his low-key and respectful approach to working with others regardless of rank, the task force first halted the astounding death rate, initially pegged at 1,000 per day, and then successfully moved all the Kurds back to Iraq.
Still not convinced of Shalikashvili’s approach? Well Gen. Colin Powell, chairman at the time, certainly was. “Shalikashvili,” Powell later awed, “had worked a miracle in the mountains of Iraq.” So Powell made Shalikashvili his assistant, a position in which the latter continued to bring others together to solve complex, difficult challenges—like securing the nuclear weapons of former Soviet Union republics following the end of the Cold War. What’s more, as SACEUR and then chairman himself, Shalikashvili then helped bring to an end the carnage in Bosnia and was a driving force behind NATO’s peaceful expansion and the transformation of militaries in Central Europe.
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While business and military organizations and operations are certainly not perfect facsimiles, the spectacular career achievements of Gen. John Shalikashvili should be enough to prompt CEOs and other top executives to seriously consider his approach as they fine tune their own chain of command principles.
Andrew Marble is author of Boy on the Bridge: The Story of John Shalikashvili’s American Success (University Press of Kentucky), the first-ever biography of Gen. John Shalikashvili. Marble has a PhD in political science from Brown University, an MA in law and diplomacy from Tufts University’s Fletcher School and a BA in East Asian studies from Middlebury College. He is outreach editor for the Taiwan Journal of Democracy and a reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. For more information, visit andrewmarble.com.