Leadership: A Bottom Up Approach

By: Capt. Christopher “Matcha” Little

"No company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it."

Jack Welch, General Electric

What do you think of when you imagine what an ideal leader should act like or be? Most people think of movie examples in which a commanding officer or noncommissioned officer of some sort gives a command, and it is, blindly or not, followed by his or her subordinates. Now, most movies and novels portray extreme or once in a lifetime heroic decision making, which in some cases is fictionalized and sometimes is actually real-life events. However, how often is the day to day top-down approach leadership modeling needing to be like this? I argue, not very often.


Most military leadership models are constructed around old, archaic, top-down leadership approaches. In a vacuum, this model works because it is easily conveyed on paper and has worked in years past. However, war and leadership change. War was standardized in the Napoleonic Wars and our military is built off of this structure. Technology has changed, war tactics have changed, and changed a lot, even how we run the office environment too has changed drastically. Sometimes at too fast of a pace. It is impossible for one individual, let’s say for example a commander of a boat, squadron, or a battalion, to know everything of what is going on at every given second; whether on the battlefield or in the office environment. The commander has his intentions and those intentions are expected to be followed.


Both the wars we fight and the offices we lead, in any branch, whether we like it or not is getting more technology focused and more complex. It is simply impossible to know every detail about everything in your leadership realm. This is why we need to rely on the decision making and expert knowledge of the operators (Airmen, Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers) who work day to day with their programs, equipment, and/or materiel to be able to decide what a certain plan of action should be, however small, since they are fully in the know of a particular problem or solution. As an example, the United States Air Force has put this into practice. While on a flying sortie, there is no rank in the aircraft. This is because rank influences decision making and while flying sometimes incorrect decision making because of rank influence could lead to disaster. However, how often does this happen in the office environment or on a training mission of sorts? Probably no more often than not. When the higher rank is present, the environment just feels different.


In the United States armed services, it is said that the Non-Commissioned Officers and the junior officers are the backbones. However, is this true in your work environment? Do they have a voice? Or is it silenced by people above them just giving them solutions to problems or procedures they think is correct? How do we empower the Lance Corporal, Airmen Basic, etc. to make small decisions and become the leaders of tomorrow? The top-down leadership approach seems to stifle growth for decision making and team building, which is vitally needed in today’s forces. The lower ranks are the technical experts and a lot of times know more about what they operate than a leader does. The leader gets paid to make the decisions not operate the equipment.


I think a leader should, in reality, make few decisive decisions without consulting his team. I like to use the word team because that is what I think a good leadership model should aim to be, a team! There are certain time-critical instances when a decision like this needs to be made, but not on a day to day routine basis. I am not arguing to change the structure of our forces, rather how the interactions between leaders and followers take place. Think about leadership this way: Would you rather have someone day after day tell you what to do or would you rather have input and say into what is happening in your organization? I think the latter.


Imagine this, you a new O-6 commander picked to be put in charge of the worse performing nuclear-powered submarine in the fleet. The retention rate of the ship was terrible, inspections barely being passed, and morale is terrible. You are deploying for a real combat deployment in 180 days, which is how long you have to turn the worst performing submarine in the fleet around. How would you do it? The top-down leadership approach is what is currently in place and is losing the day to day battle. There is procedure after procedure that is in place that funnels up to the Commanding Officer (CO) and then back down again, sometimes getting things lost in the mix. This is what the new Commander, now retired, Captain David Marquet inherited on his new nuclear powered submarine, the Santa Fe. In his book Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, he talks about how he did just that, turning his followers who wanted a say in things into leaders. What if you could do that in your operational area or office environment?


Building a team isn’t about showing up with more rank on your shoulder than the other guy, it is about letting them have input, take ownership, and strive for excellence toward the common goal. Marquet knew this needed to happen to his new operational area, the Santa Fe. First, he looked at processes, which all seemed to flow up to the top. The stuff that could be handled at a lower level always required up to 14 different people to sign off or look at something. How ridiculous is this? How often does this actually happen? There are very few things in the DoD that need to be handled in this manner. Especially in complex environments like subs, airplanes, or tanks. Nothing was getting done at the lower level. No one felt they had a say and no one felt their inputs mattered because ultimately the CO or XO was the only one saying yay or nay.


To simplify some things, a new procedure the leadership tried out on the Santa Fe, was to get people to say “Sir or Ma’am, I intend to do this or that”, instead of “Sir or Ma’am, I want to do this or that”. This empowers the potential leaders below you to have already made the correct decision. Marquet would simply say “very well then.” A simple play on words was one piece in the puzzle to turn the boat around. By saying “I intend to,” gave the follower a say in the matter, an opinion if you will. Thereby allowing them to feel more invested in the mission or goal.


"The task of leadership is not to put passion into

people, but to inspire and elicit it -- for the passion is there already."

--Ty Howard

Another thing that helped the boat turn around from the worst performing submarine in the fleet to the best seven years in a row was to empower the chiefs (or NCOs) to handle things and not have every decision on a day to day basis go up the chain then back down the chain. This impeded the ability to adapt as a submarine in this case. An example was leave chits, which had to be vetted through 8-14 people in the chain of command before getting back to the individual, often getting lost along the way or just sitting in someone’s inbox. The Chief’s were put in charge to manage the leave chits instead of the XO. Per regulations the CO had to sign it too, but it cut out a lot of the middle work allowing the men to get time off approved faster and was a small way to improve morale. Think about this example times one thousand if something like this was to be implemented on things that could be handled at a lower level.


Sailors on the Santa Fe were trying just to avoid mistakes and carry on the mission in the lowest manner possible without trying to achieve excellence, which is something perhaps ever commander wants for their jurisdiction. By empowering the lowest level machine operator to say, “Sir or Ma’am, I intend to do this” it is at some level giving that person a say and investment in the thing they are about to do. By the time things get to the CO, the thing he or she needs to attend to or make a decision on should already have been vetted by those below him or her to be able to make an easy decision one. This would be ideal, instead of having to rely on the CO for every single answer and solution. This stifles the ability to change and adapt to adverse issues that come up. Most of the time the commanding officer is not an expert anymore on most things going on in their environment. Most technical skills are perishable and frequently change anyway.


Ultimately, it is the COs job to be the one to make the tough decision or be the one to administer punishment, but this should not be something you strive for on a day to day basis. Empower those below you, like Marquet did on the Santa Fe to make decisions and to have inputs, and you will be surprised to see that your squadron, battalion, platoon, etc. will emerge as a team. When a team works together, they win. I believe a team that works together and trusts each other is the ultimate goal a CO or NCO should have for those under them. They are the future leaders. Lead by example. Work from bottom up, not top-down.