Small Wars Journal

Delegate Beyond Point of Comfort

Delegate Beyond Point of Comfort

by Ken White

The tendency in the United State Armed Forces to micromanage is inimical to competency in combat and has adverse implications for doctrinal development. We should train to eliminate it yet instead we tacitly -- some would say overtly -- encourage it.

Colonel Daniel S. Roper, Director, USA/USMC COIN Center, 10 Dec 07 Iraq visit briefing (extract):

Delegation. OODA loop so tight, if capabilities, lethal or non-lethal, (e.g., AH, $, Intel, PSYOPs) not pushed to executor, may miss window of opportunity. Delegate beyond point of comfort. (emphasis added)

Why should such an obvious thing have to be said?

Because our egos are so large that we discard the lessons of history and sometimes even our training for our own determination of what is required and we know we cannot trust our subordinates to do it our way? Since we have been successful, obviously our way is correct...

That may be unfair and it certainly does not apply to all but it does apply to many; more importantly, we often forget it does not have to be our way to be correct and when we do remember that, we recall that our subordinates are not as capable as we'd like. Thus we eschew delegation and micromanage. We do this in the face of historical precedent in all our wars that this is practiced on entry and is discarded as dangerous as we gain experience in that war. See First Manassas or Kasserine Pass and compare those with later unit and soldier actions at Yellow Tavern and penetrating the Siegfried Line in the same wars.

I applauded when I was told that had been stated by Colonel Roper. Seemed like a long overdue observation to me. I have watched the progress of micromanagement in the Armed Forces of the United States since World War II. Watched it with considerable fear and trepidation. Even got to operate under it for many years...

While my comments apply to all four services and to the Department of Defense as an entity, I am more familiar with the US Army and will address just it in detail.

Brain McAllister Linn in his excellent book The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War discusses the doctrinal battles and squabbles of the US Army from its birth through last year. He well captures the current arguments between major war and Counterinsurgency warfare proponents -- and illustrates that is not at all a new argument but one with ancient roots. It's an excellent book and it has some cautionary words for today's leaders.

He suggests that Army leaders fall into three broad categories he describes as 'Guardians, Heroes and Managers.' My observation over many years is that he gets much of that right. Guardians are 'big war' proponents; Managers have obvious tendencies and the Heroes tend to elevate the Soldier above technique or equipment. Heroes also tend to be accepting of if not proponents of small wars, Guardians oppose them and Managers also tend to lean that way (they are 'inefficient'). Obviously any categorization of an institution as large as the Officer Corps of the US Army into three subsets is somewhat simplistic but it suffices in the case of that book. Those in the Armed Forces will immediately recognize their acquaintances as belonging to one group or another.

Doctor Linn does not spend much time on the topic of delegation versus micromanagement though he does address it in passing -- it is after all a matter of historical record and reality. I suggest that tension has every bit as much if not more to do with the future direction of the Army as does that between his cited categories.

Perhaps much more.

There has long been a tension between Officers and NonCommissioned Officers who prefer well disciplined soldiers who obey orders with few questions and their leader counterparts who wish to command or lead thinking soldiers, encourage questions and don't get too upset at minor indiscipline. While there is a slight tendency for the Linn Heroes to prefer the thinking soldier, the two schools of thought have proponents in all his categories. However, in the division between micromanagers and delegators, the former tend to strongly prefer unthinking obedience while the latter obviously require thinking soldiers.

Briefly consider ramifications of that thought...

There is a further complication. Branch or Combat Arm modalities and experience produce pressures that encourage micromanagement or decentralization. Artillerists require mathematical precision, can do great damage and thus do not encourage 'out of the box' thinking. Armor and Mechanized Infantry need focused efforts, good gunnery and pretty strong adherence to plans in vehicles that do not break down. Aviators have truly significant safety concerns and know that use of the checklist precludes error. All those arms have peacetime and training routines that emphasize 'metrics' -- Tankers and Bradley unit Commanders are effectively graded on their gunnery and maintenance statistics. Tactical training is considered but pales into insignificance in comparison to the tables and OR rates. Artillery and Aviation Commanders also have range and maintenance efforts that take primacy. There is no question that gunnery and maintenance are imperative -- but so also are the people who do those things and the tactical aspects. Regardless, the point is those efforts encourage a degree of micromanagement.

Consider, on the other hand the Infantry Commander. People are his primary concern as he can do nothing in his mission set without them; his range scores are not indicative of much, his maintenance requirements are slight in comparison to other arms. Thus he has some inclination to not micromanage. The Cavalryman tends for many reasons to blend armor and infantry attributes. These two tend to favor decentralization and delegation.

That said micromanagers are almost as prevalent in the Infantry and Cavalry as they are elsewhere so we are confronted with the fact that it must be at least in part, a human predilection. The thing that must be considered is just how much we reinforce that tendency. It is important to recall that the tendency has been prevalent throughout our history and that it goes by the wayside as the war progresses. It does this as experience replaces inadequate training and as the tempo of operations becomes (sometimes -- Counterinsurgency and Foreign Internal Development are usually not fast paced overall) more rapid and greater dispersion becomes necessary.

A look at that last 50 years in the Army can offer some illumination. In 1958, the Army had just completed the shift into a Pentomic organization. This, effectively, placed one Colonel and two Lieutenant Colonels in charge of a large Battalion. This was done not because the organization required the knowledge and experience of a Colonel but to justify and not lose those Colonel spaces. Regardless of why, it taught a number of Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels to worry about echelons below their skill level as those senior officers had experienced Company, Battery and Troop Commanders, many commanding their second or even third company level unit.

Then came Robert Strange McNamara with Whiz Kids, Ford Motor Company (Haven't I heard something about them lately...) management techniques, an ego bigger than Alaska and the introduction of the zero defects mentality. This was followed by our entry into Viet Nam. A system of one year individual tours to the combat zone was in effect. Due to several factors, by late 1968, there was a shortage of Captains and experienced Non-Commissioned Officers. The former problem was addressed by producing more Lieutenants, the latter by developing a NonCommissioned Officer Candidate Course that was conducted at several Posts and produced a plethora of new Sergeants.

Battalion Commanders in Viet Nam post late 1968 quickly discovered they had few Captains and Senior NonCommissioned Officers but plenty of truly dedicated young Lieutenants and Sergeants who would try to do anything you asked of them. Problem was, they were inexperienced and didn't know much -- so they had to be watched extremely closely. Thus as a result of a very senior exemplar of micromanagement, a very flawed personnel policy and inadequate training, a generation of future Generals learned to micromanage.

They also learned that Counterinsurgency was tedious, dirty, unfulfilling and to be avoided -- but that is another story.

Micromanagement has always been about. However, as a result of occurrences in the 1958-1975 time period the techniques was elevated to an art form and for the first time became firmly embedded in the US Army as the preferred way to do business. Sporadic attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by visionary senior people like Generals Edward C. Meyer and Lieutenant General Walter Ulmer to stop this insidious trend were derailed by the bureaucracy that simply waited until they were gone and reemployed its strait jacket. Compliance and mediocrity were desired.

In the past, we have had time in all our wars -- though at the cost of unnecessary casualties and losses -- to discard the peacetime tendency to micromanage. The most recent example of this phenomenon is of curse Iraq. We had 18 moths of initial lost time and many missteps; it took another 18 months to work out the kinks and only in the last 18 months have successes been achieved. A very significant question today is will that time be available in the future? Given the size of the force, can those unnecessary casualties be afforded?

We are now in a new Century. We have a fully professional Army that is hobbled in performance by an archaic training system and what is essentially a World War and draftee based personnel system that insists all persons of like grade and specialty are equal. This is obviously a patently incorrect assumption and policy. Inadequate initial entry training for both Officers and Enlisted persons -- as well as some shortfalls in professional military education -- and insistence on retaining that personnel system literally force us into micromanagement.

Congress is a big driver in personnel matters in an attempt to be fair and equitable. I applaud their intent. Unfortunately, they don't seem to understand that being fair and equitable in such a manner causes significant death and destruction to their voter's sons and daughters because combat is not fair and equitable. Surely that can be explained to them.

The Army -- all the services -- must consider the ramifications of micromanagement on force design. They also need to train people to avoid micromanaging their subordinates. More importantly, the US Army needs to acknowledge that micromanagement occurs because too many are afraid to trust their subordinates. It's really that simple.

People are micromanaged because of the perception they can't be trusted.

They, in the case of the US Army, can't be trusted because too many subordinates are inadequately trained and too many leaders are in jobs they should not have. Whatever the force structure decisions those errors need to be remedied.


Ken White

Wed, 12/10/2008 - 3:20pm


Good points all, thank you for raising them. I did not mean to imply the personnel system deliberately fostered micromanagement. My belief is that micromanagement is a human predilection that varies from person to person and that our force design, training and the personnel system all inadvertantly contribute to exacerbating the problem.

With respect to the personnel system I believe the Congressionally forced-upon-us mantra of "any person of X rank and Y specialty is competent to perform any X-Y job" is deeply flawed and puts people in positions where their ability to operate easily is severely challenged. Add to that too rapid rotation between jobs and the highly competitive nature of the Officer promotion system which punishes for the slightest failure or shortcoming and we have a recipe for micromanagement as a solution. Those are things I see as the Pers system's unintended contribution to the problem. They are exacerbated by our training processes and the almost unavoidable differences in supervisory approach created by unit operational requirements in our force structure.

Your second item poses an interesting question <i>"...have we simply been forced to abandon that tendency as a result of the circumstances we find ourselves in when deployed? "</i> I honestly do not know and I suspect it's some of both but my belief like yours is that whether by voluntary discard or forced abandonment, lessening of micromanagement has proven highly beneficial in later stage of all the wars I've been in or seen.

With respect to your important question<i>"how do we fix the problem"</i> in view of the current OPTEMPO, I doubt we can fix it in the near term or as long as the tempo is the same or near it. Eventually it will go down and we will try to absorb lessons learned and fix the errors. Hopefully, one we will address -- it's sort of like terrorism; we aren't going to eliminate it -- and reduce is that tendency to over control.

Your points on training are accurate as well. I have long subscribed to the theory that every Officer and NCO is first and foremost a trainer. I further strongly believe that training is a constant and that it MUST take place even when deployed. I have noted that in war, we develop truly great fighters but our training ability deteriorates pretty badly; we have great NCOs and junior officers who can do -- but they don't know how to train and, given the OPTEMPO, don't have time to learn. What I'm currently wrestling with is the dichotomy between 'everyone is a trainer' and the Per system incongruity fact that not everyone can do every job equally well.

Does this mean we should have dedicated, schooled for purpose Trainers? The Israelis (not a model Army by any means) do and the Germans (same comment applies) did. I don't know the answer; what I do know is that I have watched US Armies go off to war since 1941, went to a couple early on myself and we do not really do that nearly as well as I believe we could.

Having been around at the birth of the ARTEP and our current training system, I am not a fan of either; both are designed for mobilization of large armies and do have real merit for that application. The problem is that both create good enough results (which I advocate for many things) -- but that's really mediocrity and given that we are not a large mobilized Army but are a small professional force with awesome potential we do not reach, I believe different approach is needed. <a href=…; Outcome Based Training </a>seems to offer many benefits in this regard. I think we lose people who would stay if we came closer to that potential. Most folks leave the Army because they're disillusioned at one thing or another; many due to lack of challenge and mediocre training; a seeming cult of mediocrity.

Your last paragraph really is the crux of the issue -- and my answer is that we ACCEPT mediocrity. On of my less favorite Generals but no dummy constantly contended that "You have to demand excellence" He got a few things wrong but he had that right, I believe. One of the last NCOs I rated before I hung up my war suit I gave a 62 on the then NCOER. Kiss of death. He was or would be, toast. Shortly thereafter at another duty station, he reenlisted on a waiver and he got promoted soon after that...

Your comment that <i>"...we assume our mid grade and senior leaders are in their jobs because they are competent..."</i> is I think a part of the problem. Yes, we do assume that; the system assumes that -- yet, it should be totally obvious that not everyone can be a great or even a good leader or commander. Everytime the system puts a person of less than ideal competence in a position of trust, it erodes that trust for all below him in the chain.

We have been forced to accept a system that virtually does that by design...

Training is a constant and all Officers and NCO must do it -- but we need to find, for the institutions, those who do it really well, I think. Counseling and evaluating are constants and all officer and NCOs must do those things as well -- but they have little incentive to do so if the system is not going to do what it should -- we need to stop punishing the innocent, truly punish the guilty then let it go, give them a chance to recant, if they do -- great. If not; to the pit!

Apache-06 (not verified)

Wed, 12/10/2008 - 1:40pm


Great points all, but being as I'm a bit "historically challenged", could you provide some clarification on a few points? Specifically, while I've had plenty of issues with HRC over the years, I can't say that I ever thought of our personnel system as encouraging micro-management. The only link I can make is with our Officer and NCO evaluation this what you meant, or were you referring to some other part of the system?

I also wonder whether or we actually "have time in all of our discard our peacetime tendency to micro-manage", or have we simply been forced to abandon that tendency as a result of the circumstances we find ourselves in when deployed? In either case, I won't argue that the result is a positive one, I just wonder if we've really got the root cause down.

Also, I couldn't agree with you more in your statement that the lack of trust we (as an institution) display in our subordinates is because they are "inadequately trained and too many leaders are in jobs they should not have." My question is "how do we fix the problem?" given the circumstances of the current fight, OPTEMPO, short periods of "rest" at home station between deployments, etc. I've noted in the past three years that, as an Army, we know how to fight, and how to do it well. What we're losing the instituional knowledge and understanding of is how to train. In my last assignment, I had platoon leaders that had never seen an ARTEP or MTP, let alone know how to use them. As a result, I was much more prescriptive in the development of training plans then my own company commander had been. While I'm not saying that the OBC's haven't changed drastically and through necessity over the past several years, and I don't want to sound like "that guy", I remember when training management took up several hours of instruction in IOBC, and as a result I knew how training doctrine worked. I can't help but think that we need to bring that skill back.

Finally, how do we hold our leaders accountable for training their subordinates not to micro-manage, or for training any other skill, for that matter? I think we do have a system in place for this, we just don't use it well...I gained a new-found level of respect for the Army's counseling system during my last assignment and deployment. Unfortunately, as in training management, we do not train our junior leaders how to use this system correctly, and this ignorance leads to a failure to employ it with our junior soldiers and officers, to say nothing of employing it at the mid-grade or senior leader levels. Instead, we assume that our mid-grade and senior leaders are in their jobs because they are competent. We do not see the necessity of "doing what we tell our troops to do" and using the NCOER or OER support forms correctly. We don't hold our leaders accountable for the development and HONEST assessment (yes, we might actually have to fill the "Do Not Promote" block on occasion) of their subordinates, so should we be surprised when those subordinates follow the lead of their former leaders?

Thanks to all for their time and thoughts.

Ed Twaddell


Wed, 12/10/2008 - 2:56am

Well Ken, I'm glad I asked. More and more I've heard about the need to <i>delegate beyond point of comfort.</i> Thanks for posting this. - Dave

Ken White

Tue, 12/09/2008 - 11:07pm


All true. Particularly the point about excessive rotation -- there again, deeply flawed personnel policies. As to NCOs and 'trusted to do' When I retired from my Civilian job at my obligatory farewell, I ended saying "We need to restore the bond of trust between Soldiers. I find it both amazing and disturbing that I was far more trusted as an 18 year old Corporal in 1950 than I am in 1995 as a senior DA civilian manager who supervises a number of LTCs..."


Chicken, egg. Dave reminded me Saturday that I owed the blog a couple. I said I'd do something over the weekend and this was one of three theme ideas but it didn't really gel until yesterday AM so your comment and my response made up my mind which to pick. Thanks... ;)

As a general comment, I'd add to my basic article above that I have often wondered how many really good Officers, NCOs and peons have left the Armed Forces due to objections to being micromanaged.

The terribly sad thing is that the tendency does a great deal more damage than it precludes.

Great article, Ken, and completely coincidental with my SWC post of yesterday on delegation. I must have been channelling you.

Steve Blair

Tue, 12/09/2008 - 11:10am

Good points, Ken, and I'd second your comments about the VERY broken personnel system and residue from the draftee force we've been required to raise in many major conflicts (starting with the Civil War, although the volunteer units there may have also encouraged this mindset).

Linn's book is an excellent snapshot of some general mindsets within the Army, but because of his focus he does miss some things. I would contend that constant job rotation undermines personnel competence, giving the micromanagers the opportunity they need to do their "good work." The major expansions the Army underwent during the world wars also created a glut of people who didn't know their jobs (through no fault of their own in most cases), again letting the micromanagers through. Constant rotation of personnel also aggravated this problem, because as soon as folks got to know each other and trained together, some would be rotated out and a new crop (who might not be as well-trained, or better-trained) arrived to fill those spots.

Historically there has always been a disdain for the "amateur solider" in the minds of the Regulars, who tended to lump draftees and volunteer units into the same group. They always needed close watching, or so the collective wisdom went, ignoring the ability of some volunteer leaders and the incompetence of some Regular officers in the same breath.

In terms of combat arms, historically micromanaging has been weakest when force stability has been strongest. By that I mean rotation of personnel between units was limited and the "up or out" personnel system didn't exist. It wasn't uncommon in the pre-war Army to see corporals with ten years of service in that grade. No one forced them out when they declined a promotion, and some men put stripes on and took them off again with almost clockwork regularity. There were also fewer officers than there are now, and many were often absent from their units on a variety of detached duties. This left the NCOs in charge of many of the day-to-day functions in units.

Most observers today, I think, would be stunned to see just how much NCOs were trusted to do in the late 1800s, and indeed into the first decades of the 20th century. Those NCOs were the backbone of the force, and I think they'd be dismayed to see just how far that backbone has decayed since World War II.

We need to get rid of our Root-relic personnel system and find a better way. Until we do, I fear the micromanagers will be with us for the foreseeable future.