It is an oft-repeated line in the Army that “we have a rank structure.” It is usually said by Soldiers to their inferiors as a way to excuse their lack of logic applied to a particular decision. They will maintain that the rank system, with its power and privileges, creates a smoother running organization—one that is quick and absolute in times of crisis. If it weren’t for rank, the argument goes, then there would be friction at all levels of decision-making and communication. Subordinates would question their leaders, and parallel parts would move in dissonance.
But what of other organizations that are much more efficient without rank?
A well-run school, for instance, surely relies on a power hierarchy; but the absolutes that accompany rank are absent. Juniors are free to question their superiors and push back on controversial decisions. Many items are brought to the vote of committees and informal groups, where give and take, compromise, and consensus rule the day.
But every organization must have some type of hierarchy in order to get things done. Well, maybe not. Malcolm Gladwell writes of Gore Industries (manufacturers of Gore-Tex) in his bestseller, The Tipping Point, that relatively small groups of employees get work done in a very efficient and effective way. There are no rank privileges, and bosses are not afforded any undue authority. Everyone works as a team, and they have a very successful business.
But in wartime, neither the taxpayer nor and the Soldier has the luxury of such cavalier associations, according to the rank theory. The risks are too great, one may argue, and the price for deliberation or indecision too high.
The fatal flaw in the argument is that it assumes a wartime posture. Fortunately, however, the United States military is rarely in a combat posture. For example, even during “wartime,” most Soldiers are in training or a readiness mode. Deployments take only a fraction of the professional Soldier’s obligation. Even when an element is deployed to a forward position, few of the Soldiers actually work in combat jobs. Out of all those, even fewer see battle.
Many who have been in forward deployments may debate this, but the fact of the matter is that out of all the man-hours available in the Army, very, very few are spent in scenarios in which split-second decisions mean life or death.
If that’s true, then wouldn’t an organizational model that encourages every worker to think through procedures and challenge bad decisions be better prepared for any situation, combat included? Just because things need to happen precisely in battle doesn’t mean that it can’t be well-thought and understood by everyone involved.
Besides, most military activities are not life-or-death situations. They are usually in preparation for a worst-case scenario, thus minimizing risk to the organization. What if the Army taught all Soldiers how to think and lead?
But thinking means questioning, and as a veritable aristocracy, the military elites would never allow for that sort of revolutionary change.
The modern American military is still very ancient in many ways. It’s rank structure, as we know it, is as old as nation-states themselves. Is it too radical to imagine a military in which rank is obsolete? Have we evolved enough to change our way of thinking?
I wonder if all the tasks the military has to accomplish could be better accomplished without the weight of rank bogging down decision-making. How many bad choices and policies could be avoided if underlings felt empowered to call it as they saw it? If more people questioned orders, and leaders anticipated questions, how much better would those orders be? If more could participate in the formulation of plans, how much more thorough would those plans be?
We have developed as a society in positive ways, tending toward democracy and active participation for all. We also have learned a lot about how humans think and what motivates them. Might it be time for the military to catch up?