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Decentralized Command

The term decentralized command refers to subordinates executing based on a good understanding of the broader mission. The SEAL teams train and work under this premise. The author states that “human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people.” With that in mind, their unit command structure was designed so that no one was responsible for more than ten people. Before deploying to Iraq, the SEAL team trained in a mock urban environment within Fort Knox. This training provided practice for moving and engaging the enemy in an environment that closely resembled where the fighting was occurring in Iraq. Additionally, it allowed subordinate leaders to fully understand the decentralized command structure. Within the close quarters of the mock city and the unusual tactics of those playing the role of the enemy, the leaders were unable to oversee everyone within their command. They had to trust that those subordinate leaders would carry out the mission. As the author states, there was no time to ask “what do I do next”. They had to think “This is what I am going to do.” The key was training and understanding the mission. The author then tells of a mission when decentralized command resulted in the avoidance of fratricide. A SEAL team was set up on the top of a building. Without road signs and addresses, the buildings were assigned numbers. A US tank commander reported enemy snipers on a building top. He relayed the building number which was not the one the SEAL team was occupying. The order to fire was about to be given when the author (unit commander), who was located in the rear, took the time to verify building numbers. It turned out the tank commander miscalculated and was about to fire on the SEAL team. The author notes that decentralized leadership allowed him to focus on the big picture. Had he been engulfed in the tactical decisions of his unit, he might not have had the opportunity to question the improper identification of the building. In this instance, decentralized command saved lives.


As an elementary principal, I had over 500 students and 30 staff members that I was responsible for. I did not have an assistant principal, but I did have a school counselor. There was no way I could micromanage. The design of the district did not allow it. More importantly, I would never want to micromanage my staff. I created a leadership team with a member from each grade level and representation from the specials and special education. It was my method of decentralizing command. As a superintendent, I also had a leadership team that consisted of nine principals and directors. It was an effective grouping. However, reflecting upon those two roles, I realize that while we did meet regularly and have good conversations, I could have done at least two things better. First, I did not reinforce my mission and what was expected of them. We talked about things that needed to be done but rarely did we discuss the reasons behind them. Not having consistent conversations about my vision did not allow my team to functions at its highest level. Second, I did not provide any training on how they were to decentralize the command at their level. While we did not have a mocked-up city to practice in, I could have brought in an expert to provide professional development or we could have had table-top discussions in which scenarios were designed and discussed. Either way, having conversations about how to decentralize command would have been a step in the right direction. Another lesson learned.


Thanks for reading!

Erik Bentzel

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© 2019 by Erik Bentzel. 

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