Second Honorable, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
The word micromanagement is enough to send shivers down the spine of any aspiring Marine leader. Leadership classes caution against it, and articles in our professional journals deride those who practice it. Recently, the commanding officer of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), then- Colonel Martin R. Berndt, was assailed in print for his perceived violation of the micromanagement dictum: the Colonel decided to be on-site during the rescue from Bosnia of Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady. Many believe that the unit commander had no business flying into the landing zone to rescue O’Grady, that by doing so he usurped the decision-making authority of his subordinates, who were trained to conduct the mission.
This rescue is cited as a “perfect example” of the micromanagement style prevalent in Marine Corps leadership today. It raised the question of where the commander should be on the battlefield. But a better question might be, “What actually constitutes micromanagement?” Micromanagement is the unnecessary encroachment on the decision-making authority of subordinates by their leaders. This does not imply that only the officer corps suffers from this malady; anyone in a position of responsibility has the potential to over-supervise subordinates. The Marine Corps has recognized this as a leadership flaw and has written doctrine to guard against it. FMFM 1-0, Leading Marines, states that we gain by “allowing junior leaders to apply judgment and act upon their decisions. The Marine Corps has always enjoyed great success decentralizing authority to the lowest levels.”
During World War II, Colonel Merritt A. Edson mentioned decentralization as important to the success of the battle for Tarawa. “It is my opinion that the reason we won this show was the ability of the junior officers and noncoms to take command of small groups of six to eight of ten men, regardless of where these men came from, and to organize and lead them as a fighting team.” No micromanagement apparent here.
Since I attended The Basic School in 1987, a new philosophy of leadership called “mission orders” has evolved aimed at improving individual thought and action. Leaders impart commander’s intent, focus of effort, and the desired end state. Subordinate leaders apply judgment and act on their decisions. The mission orders philosophy realizes that the strength of Marine Corps leadership at a1 levels is a product of individual responsibility, creativity, decision making, and judgment. In 1989, while assigned to a Marine Expeditionary Unit Service Support Group (MSSG), I would have relished the concept of mission orders, because I had the misfortune of working for the “ultimate micromanager.”
I commanded the Landing Support Detachment of an MSSG as a newly commissioned second lieutenant with virtually no leadership experience; in fact, nearly all of the detachment commanders were second lieutenants with great potential but little experience. Our commanding officer didn’t seem to recognize our abilities as junior leaders and decision makers. Every decision was highly scrutinized. This CO applied the full-court press of over-supervision. He demanded detailed training schedules for each of our detachments. Worse yet, he actually came to the training site at the scheduled time to see if we were conducting this training! Detachment commanders were asked never-ending questions relating to every aspect of our detachments, missions, whereabouts, daily accomplishments, and personnel management. Minutia ruled the day. We were not allowed to fail—and to learn from such failure.
The CO maintained this pressure constantly and seemed to be everywhere at all times, even showing up at 0300 in the lower holds of our ship to check on the posted gear guards while at sea. Didn’t he know that the young leaders of his MSSG would take care of the details? Didn’t he trust us? Unit morale hit an all- time low. We were told that morale and happiness were not synonymous terms. Bitterness toward the CO was evident among the officers and enlisted alike. He epitomized the term micromanagement.
I was not the only young officer who was elated when the time came for his change of command. He moved on to a new position, and so did I. I looked forward to serving under a new commander Who would give me that “special trust and confidence” that we talk so much about.
During my first CO’s meeting at the few command, I answered detailed questions about the readiness of my section for the upcoming field exercise. I immediately thought of the past year of con- trolled supervision I had endured. The experiences gained while working for the ultimate micromanager" prepared me for this type of situation. Quickly gathering my staff, I drained them dry of ideas, details, and solutions to unit problems as ammunition for the next week’s battle. I asked numerous questions, assigned tasks to clear up some discrepancies in the daily operations of my section, and gathered my thoughts on how to improve the unit. I developed an oral brief that outlined the section’s capabilities and the procedures to request support. That presentation and many subsequent ones were successful and required no further discussion. I had learned to be thorough, succinct, and “forward leaning.”
The years following my departure from the “ultimate micromanager” have produced a strange phenomenon. As time passes, he seems less like a tyrannical control fanatic and more like a tutor. He becomes more intelligent by the day. As I reflect on the development of my own leadership style, the “ultimate micromanager” has evolved into the "ultimate teacher." Despite his approach, which I did not understand at the time, he produced successful junior officers who today are considered by peers and subordinates to be effective leaders.
As a second lieutenant, I didn't possess the experience or knowledge to accept mission-type orders and carry them out effectively. I had the desire and potential but lacked the tools or leadership training to be successful. By asking the tough questions and demanding a high standard of accountability he forced me into detailed thought. I searched my mind for innovation, motivation, and my own desired end state for my Marines. This required research, both in doctrinal publications and in my staff noncommissioned officer leadership.
The “ultimate teacher” always was close at hand to provide the tie breaker or to make command decisions, but mostly to mold me into a thinking, involved leader. I have come to realize that he didn’t restrict individual thought or new ideas. I never received a "no" to any idea I submitted for approval. Detailed questions from the commander did not constitute the revocation of my decision-making authority or responsibility. I had confused involved leadership with micromanagement. What I learned then has continued to serve me today as I hone my own leadership style. I ask similar questions and require the same detail that was required of me.
How does micromanagement relate to the location of the commander on the battlefield? Clearly the proximity of the commander is not the central issue of micromanagement. There is a danger in assuming that because a leader is in proximity to subordinate decision makers that he automatically will take away their decision-making power. Often, what we perceive to be micromanagement isn’t micromanagement at all.
So, where should Colonel Berndt have placed himself to influence the rescue mission? If he instructed the pilots where to land, directed the action of the platoon, or in some other direct way made all of the decisions, then he should expect the criticism of his fellow Marines. But, if the MEU commander put himself in the best possible place to gain situational awareness and to make the call to continue or abort an important and politically charged mission, then perhaps Colonel Berndt’s detractors have misunderstood what responsible leadership really is.
There are a variety of leadership styles exhibited in the Marine Corps. Many of us are quick to label hands-on leaders as micromanagers. Before we succumb to this temptation, we should apply a simple two-part test: (1) Does the leader unnecessarily take away the decision-making authority of those who are responsible for the decision? (2) Do the unit and mission suffer because of the level of supervision?
If the answer to both of these questions is “yes,” then the micromanagement label would be appropriate. If the answer to either question is "no,” however, it is possible that you are not witnessing over-supervision. You may be seeing the deliberate training of juniors by more experienced leaders. In the case of Colonel Berndt, many may have mislabeled responsible, involved leadership in the execution of a high-profile mission as micromanagement.
As far as I know, the “ultimate teacher" has retired. I sense that he knew I would figure all of this out someday. He was right again.
Captain Doolin is assigned to G-4 Plans Office, 3d Marine Division, Okinawa, Japan.