Let’s take another, or a first time, look at the concept of “chain of command.”
‘Your dictionary’ defines chain of command this way: an official hierarchy of authority that dictates who is in charge of whom and of whom permission must be asked. An example of chain of command is when an employee reports to a manager who reports to a senior manager who reports to the vice president who reports to the CEO.
The website Chron says this on the importance of chain of command in business:
Companies institute a chain of command to provide workers at all levels with a supervisor to provide workers at all levels with a supervisor to whom they may ask questions or report problems. When this hierarchy is not supported and respected, the company, and its workers may suffer.
Leadership literature denotes an organizational chart, formal line of authority, different from the informal organization….those people and departments whose opinions, recommendations, and vision seem to have a significant impact on the organization.
Yesterday, as one of the more visible and tragic reports of the current global pandemic.
“U.S. Navy Captain Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was relieved of commend at the direction of acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. The Navy removed Crozier after becoming increasingly convinced that he was involved in leaking the letter to the media to force3 the service to address his concerns, a defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.” (Dan Lamothe and Missy Ryan, Washington Post, quoted in Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 2020)
Other reports, specially from MSNBC, indicate that Captain Crozier had previously been in contact with the Secretary’s office about his deep concern about the rampaging spread of COVID-19 among the nearly 5000 crewmen and women aboard his aircraft carrier off Guam.
If we take only a step back from this story, we can easily visualize this vessel, a highly compact structure, housing thousands of men and women, obviously in what in civilian terms have to be cramped quarters, where social distancing is almost literally impossible, and where this pandemic has already struck some 100 crew members. Uttering a public statement after attempting to get the attention of the ‘brass’ of the Navy, in an act of urgent support for his crew, and in an obviously professional, disciplined and even somewhat restrained act of ethically charged duty, nevertheless, has left Captain Crozier relieved of his duties.
Nevertheless, we all know, without doubt, that inside a military campaign, any war effort in history, (and this is certainly a war effort of epic proportions!) while there may be a degree of adherence to the “military code” including the chain of command, there are zillions of decisions taken by lower rank officers, sometimes vetted by superiors and sometimes not, that demonstrate a different level of both commitment and loyalty to the “service” on which that service depends, even if it turns a blind eye to such instances.
This decision is not retaliatory, according to the acting Navy Secretary, but as Joe Biden puts it, “he shot the messenger—a commanding officer who was faithful to both his national security mission and his duty to care for his sailors, and who rightly focused attention on a broader concern about how to maintain military readiness during this pandemic.” (NBC News, Courtney Kube and Mosheh Gains, April 2, 2020)
This is not only an ethical, professional deportment issue in the United States Navy. It is a far broader question about how authority operates, both in and out of crisis. And how authority operates, not only in a given situation, but generally, culturally, and imaginatively, and even mythically, is of concern to many, including this scribe.
The medical model of professional ethics, including ‘do no harm,’ involves at least a theoretical diagnosis of the immediate crisis, and when time permits a far deeper analysis of the root causes of that crisis. The diagnostic process, however, is one that flows from the mind/mouth of the supervising physician, to be questioned and itself diagnosed later by a panel of peers. And the question of where the “authority” of the frontline professional intersects with the “authority” of the supervising professional is, in many cases, including this one, ambiguous. The degree of urgency, for example, simply cannot be judged accurately from an office in Washington, on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. This is not an apology for Modly’s decision; it is rather a clarifying contention that in such cases, Modly, and all other in his “chair” need to have far more respect and honour for the decisions of the officers in their command.
There are two different and somewhat competing fears contending in this case. The fear of Crozier is that his crews’ lives are, (not will be!) in serious danger; the fear of Modly is that the reputation of the Navy, including the ‘protection’ of the families of the crew are unprepared for such a drastic and devastating piece of news. Not incidentally, the Navy itself is not prepared for such an tragic dynamic as the one reported by Crozier. Given the concept of “chain of command,” the military, especially in times of crisis, simply cannot and will not tolerate ambiguity. And here is the rub.
Ambiguity, that gauze lens that would be well attached to each and every personal camera lens, and every iris, witnessing any situation, is quite literally and metaphorically anathema to the “military chain of command.” In fact, training in hierarchical organizations, (that really means all organizations) involves “breaking” the recruit down, into such a level of obedience, even subservience, and sycophancy, that, for the most part, there is little if any likelihood that the new recruit will “colour outside the lines” of the strict adherence to the expected behaviour protocol. In that way, anticipating rebellion in advance, the military weeds out those it suspects of tilting toward insubordination.
And what is the risk/reward of such strict authority, discipline, and the requisite sanctions?
Well, for starters, those eventually in command know that their “battalion” will follow orders, and will “cover” for each other, in the case of friction. Maintaining a merely modest degree of tolerance of aberrant behaviour, by turning a blind eye, and invoking the “rules” and the sanctions precludes becoming entangled in too many “due process” discoveries, and legal cases. Efficiency, especially in the pursuit of national security, is a highly valued objective. And its achievement requires considerable discipline, restraint and obedience.
Another ‘price’ is that the men and women in such an hierarchy, know that if and when they are in actual combat, their peers will “have their back”….protecting, warning and even rescuing them from danger, if and when they can.
One risk is that a commander, in pursuit of personal glory, can and will order missions beyond the capability of the human, or materiel resources. Another is that alliances between commanders at a peer level, can and will plan and execute missions, strategic plans, orders of equipment and even ‘hollywood’ missions to burnish their own, and their political masters’ reputations. In such cases, what ‘private’ is going to ‘go public’ with his or her “whistleblowing”? Few if any!
In fact, the issue of whistleblowing is at the core of how effective, ethical, honourable and trustworthy organizations must operate. Simply, it seems clear that weak men (mostly men!) are more frightened by the prospect of whistleblowers than are more confident, secure and self-possessed men. The former too often discourage or dismiss whistleblowers while the latter foster and encourage their protestations.
Yet, there is no magic pill to engender confident, secure, self-possessed men. And while all mothers and fathers would and do argue that such a picture is an envisaged “goal” of their parenting of their sons, very different approaches lead to widely divergent results. (This issue of chain of command is not restricted to “parenting;” and yet, parenting is where the process begins.)
Families have implicit “heads” the adult to “wears the pants” and every child quickly learns which parent that is, even if it differs depending on the issue. However, within families, at least modestly functioning families, a single parent’s decision can and will be appealed to the other parent. No parent is free of the immunity of absolute control, thankfully!
In the classroom, the teacher is “in charge” and when the classroom door closes, responsibility for whatever takes place inside, rests on his/her shoulders. However, there is little doubt that whatever happens will “leak” into the outside world, including the principal’s office, the rest of the school population and eventually the parents of every child in that room on that day. There is a kind of implicit circle of influence around each and every classroom, about which no teacher is unconscious. And that circle serves a highly constructive purpose. While putting every teacher in a “fish-bowl,” it also offers a generally (at least in past decades) supportive section of parents who appreciate the work the teacher is doing. And providing nothing too esoteric happens, confidence in the teacher is secure.
An anecdote, from street talk after decades of a teaching career: “We only wish he had not gone so far in the conversations he had with students,” presumably, based on stories that whatever topics lept from the pages of the novels and poems and plays, and prompted students’ vocalizings in class. Their participation was not only permitted by actually fostered and nurtured. Mine were, after all, English classes, and communication, including the growth of the confidence and the courage to say whatever one felt or believed, was an intimate component of the process. An equal opportunity was always there for those who did not agree. And the dialogue that ensued were among the most memorable in my career.
It will come as not surprise to read that, not only in those classes from another life, but today, in reference to the Crozier relieving of office, there lies a deeply embedded conviction that a healthy culture needs more Croziers. We also need more officers in top positions, on pyramids that are leaning away from the social structure based on integrity, openness and transparency words mouthed from too many platforms followed by hollow and empty slogans that eviscerate the meaning of openness and transparency (and accountability), and thereby erode whatever trust the public (and there are many for each and every hierarchy) may have had.
Self-absorbed men, however, seem to be the inverse of self-possessed men. And there must be a “factory” either birthing or brain-washing thousands of them, in such socially insufferable traits as:
· sycophancy, boot-licking,
· fitting in with the establishment (even when the establishment has demonstrated the rust of its hollow convictions and practice),
· climbing the ladder of extrinsic success (as a single, compulsive goal), selling out (on both morality and ethics) to get that promotion
· selling out the sick and injured patient/worker to protect the corporation/employer and the security of the revenue stream, as well as the upper-class social reputation
· generating decisions based on self-interest and not the broader public interest
· failing to face and confront the fullness of responsibility, by reductionistic thinking and practice that narrows the “motivation” and cause of a reprehensible and demeaning human decision.
· covering-up one’s own inadequacy
· blaming others for failures of transparency and accountability
· name-dropping as a method of attempting to climb in the eyes of another
· practising a hollow, yet reverential and ritualistic religion, as a path to social acceptance and corporate respect
· donating lavishly and dramatically to worthy causes, without believing in or even investigating their value, in order to burnish one’s, or one’s corporate reputation
And yet, all of these ‘under the radar’ kinds of behaviour, conducted by both men and women, yet engineered primarily by men, as an integral component of an agenda of transaction, engagement without authenticity and integrity, in service of a personal, as opposed to a public, common, shared agenda.
A recent real estate transaction, whose history is only very partially in the public square, finds a high-rise concrete condo development on a town’s waterfront, following the closing of a former marina. The land, allegedly, was offered to the municipality, which turned down the offer, and the current justification for the highly lucrative business operation is, “that company bought and owned the land, so they can do whatever they like with it.” Whatever public discussion, debate, and dialogue was held before the erection, is now ‘water under the bridge’ yet the demise of the local newspaper, having been bought and sold to an large urban media company with no interest in the municipality, is just another of the indices that lead to a diagnosis of the elimination of both whistleblower and due process, to which both Crozier and this town are, or have been, entitled.
After the face, however, even in a legitimate review of public decisions, most of the damage has already been done. The people in Crozier’s situation never really recover their former public trust, and the people like Modly, never have either to account for, or to experience public sanctions for their impetuous neurosis.
Hierarchical, pyramidal organizations, however, ought not to be operating without a legitimate, thorough, investigative appeal process, similar to that surrounding every classroom in the country. Parents care deeply for their kids and how their teachers treat them, as well as how well they are learning their “lessons”. Similarly, the public, although a much wider segment, and much more loosely connected and therefore less easily ‘coalesced’ into a relevant voice, still care very deeply for the cultural norms that hold our civilization together in trust, and the obedience that can only come from implicit and unreserved trust.
Where is the factory that is generating such trust? Is that the missing PPE for which we all cry?