The Dilemma of a Chain-of-Command Leadership Structure

Howard Spierer

The dilemma of enforcing chain of command in a volunteer organization.

One of the tenets of our MDI Code of Honor is to earn and honor rank. I’d like to address a real-life dilemma that occurs on occasion in our organization.

Assume the following two statements are true:

  1. A leader is respected and trusted by the men he is charged to lead.
  2. That same leader refuses to work with or follow the men he is charged with following or working with.

I have seen this scenario play out too many times in MDI. I can only speak to how I handled it when I was the President of MDI or in some other leadership capacity.

I believe I can never tell other people who they can or cannot choose to follow. I can’t police who others choose to meet with or how they choose to act.  I do not have the ability to attend every men’s team meeting or division meeting or conference call to ensure that the man I prefer not to be a leader is not in fact leading either outright or in a shadow capacity.

What I can do is honor the truth and challenge men to come from a place of integrity in honoring their word. In my opinion if I ask men to if choose a leader they have the responsibility to ensure that leader is performing his job. That job is to work in tandem with me and the other members of our team for the betterment of the greater organization. If that is not happening, it falls on me to enroll those men to remove him from his position. The exception being if that leader violates the law or is putting his men or the organization in grave danger.

I have found it to be a challenging dance that requires considerable nuance to make it work.

I believe that for any leader to be effective he must have the right to choose who he will and will not work with. But to only choose to work with those who agree with me, while it may be justified in a for-profit setting, simply doesn’t make sense in an organization such as MDI where our goal is to foster personal growth. After all, if I choose solely to work with like-minded individuals it is kind of akin to masturbation; it may feel good in the moment but at the end of the day there is no chance whatsoever of creating a life.

For that reason, I try to seek out those who I know will push back on me on occasion. However, sometimes that pushback can become a distraction and impediment to where it is I want to go.

So how do I navigate the two truths dilemma?

As with any conflict, it is important to lay out where I want to go and why. Context is king, and it is often said that the man with the bigger context rules the day. Once I lay out my vision, I ask the man if he can get behind it. Often, the answer is no. So, I of course ask why?

Then I do something which a lot of other leaders might consider risky. I say, “If you can’t support what I’m doing can you least commit to stay out of the way?”

What does that mean?

It means allowing me to have direct access to the man they lead and not doing anything that would directly conflict with where I am trying to go. For example, if I am planning a community service event i ask that they not schedule events on the same day or during the week before or after. I ask them to agree that if they going to disagree with me they do so in a public forum, so I have if the opportunity to hear what they say and respond in kind. I also let them know that their opposition will have a short shelf life.

Essentially, say your piece then got out of the way. I believe this is a valuable way to proceed because I want to know about any opposition I might face up front. It is easier to avoid a runaway freight train if you see it coming toward you than if you have your back turned towards it.  I should note this requires me to have the confidence to believe that I may not always be right. Note that statement may sound weird to some, but for me it means having confidence in my ability to weigh and evaluate and, if necessary, incorporate opposing views. A critical step is to ensure that they understand that by agreeing to this, they are giving me permission to remove them if they fail to keep their word. I’m not asking for their permission, I am letting them know that I will hold them to their word. I have found it to be a very easy conversation to have with the men they are charged with leading to say “I asked them to do X. They agreed and then they failed to do it, so I had to remove them.”

Sometimes the issue is not a difference of opinion but rather the realization that the leader is simply ineffective. In those instances, it is important that I lay out the benchmarks I expect to be obtained. Again, the question is can you commit to meet these? If the answer is no, after asking why, if we still can’t find a path forward, I will ask them to step down. It is rare that someone refuses. In those instances where they do, I bring my case to their men and ask them, “What would you do in my position?” It is rare they don’t see my point.

I’d like to think it’s still true that people will not be willing to follow a leader that can’t be trusted to keep their word. In every instance of chain-of-command conflict, I tried to move the ball from the impasse being my problem to being the problem of the men being led. Men love solving problems. The juicier the problem, the more energized they get; provided I have exposed them to the light at the end of the tunnel.

Admittedly, the method takes time and requires me to leave my ego at the door. I need to continually remind myself that it is more important to get the results I seek than to be right. The process is not without some emotional angst and frustration but in every instance, I was able to earn the respect of the men who were not my direct reports.

The loyalty and trust I was able to garner paid off dividends somewhere down the line. The good news is because we are not a for-profit entity time is never critical so doing the dirty work is justified.

I believe if we are going to create an organization of 5,000 men that will stand the test of time ,it starts with a solid foundation that requires some deep digging and dirty hands.

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