Tag Archives: Decentralize Command

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.

We Must Teach Initiative

From http://dictionary.com:

  1. the ability to assess and initiate things independently.
    “use your initiative, imagination, and common sense”
    synonyms: resourcefulnessinventiveness

  2. the power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do.
    “we have lost the initiative and allowed our opponents to dictate the subject”

Here is an example of why we must teach initiative, taken from the powerful and thought-provoking film Most Likely to Succeed:

This scene reduced one of my favorite educators to tears when she saw it. It is a powerful example of what students are not learning in our classrooms.

We have one more Law of Combat from Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win to explore as we continue creating a foundation for Teachership. Before we explore that Law of Combat — Decentralize Command — we must state why it is important. Decentralize Command means granting trained subordinates the latitude to take and manage risks, fulfilling the leader’s intent without seeking permission. Educators are not used to cultivating initiative in the classroom, and parents and administrators may have objections to implementing Decentralize Command if the teacher fails to communicate what is happening and why.

Decentralize Command is different from the other Laws of Combat. Teachers have been trying with varying success to implement Cover and Move for a long time. It should surprise no one that we will teach students to collaborate in their learning or that we will collaborate with our colleagues and administrators. Everyone wants us to keep things Simple and to Prioritize and Execute. Decentralize Command will cause more concern because we will create opportunities for students to use initiative and to lead each other.

We must exercise our initiative to communicate with parents and administrators and address concerns that we should anticipate.

Why Decentralize Command?

It’s easy to justify Decentralize Command as a rule for combat or business, as the authors of Extreme Ownership do. Risk-taking and risk management are adult activities, and adults should know how to take responsibility for and mitigate risk. When do we teach this to our students? How can we help them develop initiative?

Soldiers fighting for their lives and their comrades’ lives must take risks and seize opportunities when that action fits the objective. There is no time to ask permission along the chain of command in the chaos of combat. Someone has to make a decision and go. Taking unplanned action to achieve objectives, save soldiers’ lives, and protect civilians is fundamental to the duty of any U.S. service member, and our best leaders train subordinates to do these things independently.

Business presents situations where managers or sales professionals must make decisions on the spot. If individuals don’t have the training and freedom to act in the company’s interests, then the organization is limited, if not paralyzed. Taking unplanned action to achieve objectives, limit liability, promote stewardship of resources, and meet legal obligations are fundamental to every role in a business, and our best leaders train their subordinates to do these things independently.

Do the best leaders in education do this? Do we give our students chances to make choices so that they can learn to optimize performance on their own initiative? How well will they do that in the future if we don’t teach them to do it now? They will do it — but shouldn’t they practice now when we can help them manage the risks?

Our students are not adults, and they are not in a chaotic environment like combat, nor are they in a dynamic environment like our economy. Educators control the classroom through curriculum, professional practice, and planning. This creates a chasm between the classroom and adult life that we must bridge.

Well-led participants in extracurricular activities have opportunities to take risks and see the consequences. Students who have jobs have chances to do this. Students who help their parents manage their households also have to practice initiative. Compared to these endeavors, classroom education is an inadequate learning experience most of the time.

Every student we teach will spend a lifetime needing to lead. Students need discipline and learning skills to succeed in school. They need to earn a high school diploma and prepare for the next mission, whether that is trade school, enlistment, college, apprenticeship, employment, or entrepreneurship. They must lead themselves.

Once they leave secondary school, they will have to learn and discipline themselves even more, and they will also need the character and confidence to act on initiative and manage risk. No one will plan and structure students’ adult lives the way we plan and structure their learning.

If a student doesn’t learn to do all of these things, then the student doesn’t learn leadership. If a teacher doesn’t do these things well, then that teacher’s students will miss a valuable model. Teachership has to include risk-taking and risk management opportunities for students and the modeling of initiative by the teacher. To learn to apply initiative in adult life, students must begin doing it while training for adult life.

We use Decentralize Command in the classroom to help students develop initiative, which is a quality we all hope to see in adults.

Own the Lines of Communication — or Fail

It is very important in implementing Teachership that we win people over to our way of thinking before we start the process of teaching students how to take and mitigate risk. Implementing Decentralize Command without communicating our plans to parents and administrators will derail the Teachership project before it has any time to work.

Imagine a parent who does not understand why some students might report to a student leader in class and not always directly to the teacher. Is the teacher even teaching those students? Imagine this parent pondering why a student is choosing among various learning activities. Is one choice better than the others? What happens if the first choice doesn’t work out? Will the consequences or delays be unacceptable? Parents will oppose what they do not understand.

Imagine a superintendent who does not understand what we are doing when parents are upset and express concerns at a personal appointment or at a school board meeting. The parent will discuss the matter with other parents who also do not understand. Imagine a principal who does not understand what we are doing when a cacophony of angry e-mails, phone calls, and surprise visits from parents begins. Administrators cannot support what they do not understand.

If we are going to implement every part of Teachership so that we can help our students become lifelong learners and leaders, then we must communicate those plans to parents and administrators before we begin. The first principle of Teachership is Ownership: if parents and administrators do not understand our plan, then we have not explained it yet. Our failure to communicate is not their fault.

The other adults in the chain of command want us to succeed in giving our students an excellent education. We are all on the same side, even when we disagree. We must explain why and how we plan to implement Decentralize Command to parents and administrators, and we have to build and maintain good relationships with them so that those lines of communication remain open and positive.

Two Excellent Questions to Answer Next

Now we can predict the two questions parents, principals, and superintendents will ask when we explain our plans to implement Teachership and Decentralize Command:

  1. How do we implement Decentralize Command in a classroom?
  2. How does implementing Decentralize Command help students to learn academic content?

We’ll address both questions in the next post.