Decentralize Command

Teachers are leaders. As leaders, they must reckon with the Laws of Combat: Prioritize and Execute, Cover and Move, Simple, and Decentralize Command. If a teacher is going to do these things in a formal leadership role, then the teacher has to be able to take a step back while students are learning and detach, observe, and be the strategic genius. That means that students have to be trained to self-direct and to make decisions, and that students must lead each other at times so that the teacher can gather data and manage relationships during class.


In Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin give examples of Decentralize Command in both combat and business. In the combat examples, we see subordinates taking initiative and leading up the chain of command to prevent friendly fire incidents and make their teams more efficient and lethal. The business example explained that leaders cannot lead large numbers of subordinates effectively, and that leaders should plan the distribution of direct reports among subordinates leaders carefully.

If we do not apply Decentralize Command, then we have to have control of everything in the room at once. Control works in both directions: if we cannot step back from a group’s activities to observe and manage at a small distance, then that group controls us through its behavior and performance. This keeps us from stepping outside the activity to see how students fare when directing themselves and leading each other. This is not Teachership.

Having to control all action in the room also forces us to use identical activities to help each student learn. Each student is unique, so, while this might seem the most fair way to do things, it is actually very unjust, because it cannot optimize growth for each student. Students at either margin — those who struggle most and those who find the regular content of the course to be very easy — receive inferior service.

Decentralize Command puts all students into leadership positions by encouraging them to use initiative. In groups of any size that follow this Law of Combat, team members learn that good leaders will listen respectfully to their concerns and suggestions, and allow them latitude to make certain decisions according to the leader’s intent. Leaders who comply with Decentralize Command know that they do not have to carry the entire burden of planning and preparation: as subordinate leaders develop initiative, top leaders can delegate certain tasks.

Delegation frees a leader to manage the “big picture” and shape a clear “leader’s intent.” Then the leader can communicate “leader’s intent” to teammates so that they understand how to make decisions in leading within the team and up the chain of command. If we are practicing Teachership, then our students will grow in initiative throughout the year.

We are implementing Decentralize Command for two key reasons. First, students will learn content more deeply when they are leading and collaborating with each other. Second, students learn leadership when they must exercise their initiative and step up to help their teams succeed.

Decentralize Command Is a Better Way to Learn Content

Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation provides a list of research-identified benefits for “collaborative learning” that opens with “development of higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills.” There are more on the list, but these are the benefits we want to achieve for our students in Teachership. The development of higher-level thinking — analysis, evaluation, and creativity — is a vital goal. Anyone can memorize, understand, and apply content, and we will teach those skills, but if students are to learn deeply and have that knowledge available to support more learning, then we must help students learn beyond the basics.

Possibly the most difficult thing for us to do is to get students to discuss or debate relevant academic content. By being present, we have a profound effect on how students participate in these activities. If a student leader can manage a team and if we can supervise the team at a small distance, then the teacher should arrange higher-level thinking activities that way. Students involved in this group will begin to take ownership of the team’s work, and they will engage in that work more completely than in a teacher-led full-class discussion or drill session.

Aren’t You Going to Teach?

We are not abdicating the teaching role to student leaders. Groups cannot begin to address problems and projects until the they can remember, understand, and apply the necessary concepts and skills. The teacher must present these to the whole class and guide practice until all students have access to the necessary knowledge by notes or other resources. Discussion, note-taking, and guided practice, led by the teacher, are still in the program — but their roles are to establish an arsenal of ideas, which students can explore and share in working on problems that challenge their analytic, evaluative, and creative skills.

We are not choosing the easy path in applying Decentralize Command or any of the other Laws of Combat. At its beginning, developing the correct conditions for collaborative learning under student leaders requires more work than teacher-centered instruction. Before implementing group activities under student leaders, we must train the class in effective note-taking and study methods, establish expectations for student self-discipline, and train all students in appropriate collaborative behaviors. We must also select and train the leaders. Falling short in any of these areas will prevent Teachership from happening at all.

What If Some Students Can’t Work Without the Teacher?

There is one exception to having students engage in collaborative learning under student leaders: some students will not acquire the necessary note-taking, social, and basic academic skills that support effective participation in these groups. These students will still be in a group and will still engage in collaborative learning, but this group will have the teacher as its leader, so that the teacher can continue to mentor these students and help them master content and skills while developing leadership skills.

There is an obvious supervision challenge here. When the room breaks to group work, we teachers take our seats in one corner of the room, with our backs to the corner. The groups we lead gather with us, and we use our location to supervise all students, as they should all be within 90˚ of our field of view. We plan our groups’ work so that, when students need a few minutes to work on a task, we may leave our seats for a few moments to observe and support the other groups.

Decentralize Command Helps Students Become Leaders

Students will have to make decisions and share ideas on their own initiative in these groups, and initiative is crucial to leadership at every level of the chain of command. Student leaders are not dictators, and we do not want their teammates to follow them blindly. We will train our leaders to check their egos, listen, and incorporate good ideas that come from teammates.

Leaders do have to make decisions — and teammates need to follow their leaders when that happens. But if leaders are serious about optimizing performance, then they will listen to others’ concerns and ideas, and incorporate them into their plans according to their judgment. Leaders will help their teammates take ownership of their work on problems and projects by listening to their ideas, adopting the best ones, and making counter-suggestions to flawed ideas. We will teach our students to do these things. When teams operate this way, our students grow in leadership, initiative, and responsibility.

When We Decentralize Command, Behavior Changes

We should begin to see more confidence and more efforts to lead up the chain of command, even when students are not working in groups. Kids push limits, and in this case, we hope they will. When Decentralize Command is working for us, our students will start to share ideas and concerns with us during whole-class activities. We must welcome and consider their ideas, listening respectfully, and then making the necessary call. If the students’ ideas are sound and helpful, then we should model the “ego check” and adopt them. If they are flawed ideas, we should make counter-suggestions respectfully. Good leaders are good listeners and amenable to good suggestions. We must model that.

Our students will take the new skills and habits they like best with them to other classes and to their activities beyond the classroom. As we observe them in their various public activities, such as sport, musical performance, or theater, we will watch for them to use initiative and to communicate effectively with their colleagues. When we see this sort of growth — in or out of the classroom — we need to recognize it. Praising a student for fulfilling specific tasks is often counterproductive, but we should look for opportunities to acknowledge broad personal growth and maturity.

Our students are not automatons and we do not want them to practice the bad habit of following bad leaders in lockstep. We also want them to learn how to be effective in helping leaders find the best solutions to team problems. We want students to become citizens who can lead and collaborate responsibly in a self-governing nation built on the blessings of liberty. To achieve that, they must have a share in directing their own work in groups of all sizes as they learn. We are the leaders of that enterprise, but we must practice good leadership to foster leadership qualities in our students.

Decentralize Command.

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