26 May 2009

The Retardation of Rank

Rank retards you.

And the organization. Most successful organizations have figured this out, but the military has decided that it is an exception. The fact remains that a top-down, hierarchical command structure causes more harm than good. It results in inefficiencies, poor decision making, built in excuses for failure, and, worst of all, prevents the rank and file from reaching their potential as resources in the organization.

The problem with a strict rank hierarchy is that is enforces and reinforces a psychology of inferiority. Indeed, that is what is is meant to do: to remind those of lesser rank that their superiors are just that. The problem is that "superior" begins to mean all sorts of things that it is not, i.e, intellectual and moral superiority.

Any organization exists to solve problems. In the case of the Army, that truth is plainly evident. We don't deploy for kicks. The problems facing the modern American military are complex and deep. They require creative thinking and a systematic approach.

Decision makers in the Army rely on their rank to give their decisions force. Many times their decisions are good. Everyone makes good decisions. But everyone also makes bad decisions at times, and any smart organization would try to mitigate them or set up systems to keep them in check.

There are three ways in which the Army rank system thwarts good decisions:

First, most people end up making decisions not based on what is best for the organization, but based on the course of action most likely to please (or least likely to displease) their superiors. Such is human nature. Rank is inherently very conservative-- the rigidity is specifically designed to maintain the status quo, and ends up almost guaranteeing that the organization will shy from risk.

It is natural in armed conflict to be averse to risk, because the the results can often be death. History, however, is replete with examples of risk aversion leading to more suffering in the long term. But I digress. The point is that most Soldiers would rather make a mediocre or poor decision that will please a superior than a bad one that will upset the order.

Second, In a command structure, one's decision-making powers increase with his progression in rank. Thus, as one gets more responsibility to make choices, he surpasses more people on the totem pole. So naturally there are more below than there are above.

With more responsibility comes decisions of greater import. There are always going to be better ideas when more people are involved in the process. So as leaders need more minds on their problems, they systematically ignore them. Good decision-making power is summarily and perilously dismissed on the basis of rank inferiority.

Finally, rank and its trappings impede a healthy flow of information up and down the chain. James Surowiecki explains it nicely in his bestselling book, The Wisdom of Crowds:

"To state the obvious, unless people know what the truth is, it's unlikely they'll make the right decisions. This means being honest about performance. It means being honest about what's not happening. It means being honest about expectations. Unfortunately, there's little evidence that this kind of sharing takes place....One of the things that gets in the way of the exchange of real information is the deep-rooted hostility on the part of bosses to opposition from subordinates. This is the real cost of a top-down approach to decision making: it confers the illusion of perfectability upon the decision makers and encourages everyone else simply to play along. What makes this especially damaging is that people in an organization already have a natural inclination to avoid conflict and potential trouble. It's remarkable, in fact, that in an autocratic organization good information ever surfaces.

Th rigidity of military rank makes good decision making very difficult, and often impossible. Until it is too late, when the effects of poor decisions are already being felt. If decisions were made from the bottom up, or by people closest to the problems, then better choices would emerge.


  1. "If decisions were made from the bottom up, or by people closest to the problems, then better choices would emerge."

    I agreed with your post until the line above. Yes, in theory decisions made by people closest to the problem equal better choices. However, in reality, people closest to the problem are usually indecisive. A trait that can be detrimental in a fight or flight circumstance.

    So, ranks are needed to move the process along in the army and other non-military organizations. Whether or not it produces good or bad decisions – the point is a decision still has to be made.

    Thank you for the interesting read - I'm always thrilled to see your take on the army's many obstacles.

  2. Being a soldier is inherently a hazardous occupation... while in life we are encouraged to play it safe, are we ever really? Existing is risky business.

    Life requires thinking on one's feet, and an ability to think outside the box and respond in the moment. True leaders need to be able to respond calmly yet firmly and proactively in the midst of crisis. The rank and file need to be led, but also encouraged to think. Thinking is a creative function.

    There is nothing at all subversive about your thinking. You are a thinking man and it is quite impressive. The army needs great leaders. Perhaps you should heed the call. So many are called, but maybe you are being chosen or driven or led in a particular direction. Take heed. The army needs the thinkers of right now and for tomorrow to imbue young minds and souls with vision and purpose. In order to truly protect ans serve our ever shrinking globe and delineated borders, we need great leaders.

    I am inspired by you and I am glad to call you friend. Most impressive is the love you feel for your wife and child, as you share it in your other blogs. The "Letters to Joseph" are beyond incredible. You three are so fortunate and may you continue to experience much fulfillment as you share your lives together, and possibly expand.

    Your little guy is adorable. I am planning a trip to SF at the end of August... I am hoping Esther and Joseph are available then. I'd love to meet the little Mr. Stowell.

    Keep writing. Your work is amazing. Keep reading, your interests are deep. Never stop thinking. We are the next generation of thinkers who will profoundly affect the globe.

    And Esther, it is so amazing the way you two dialogue... Very nice...

    Finally, you know what I think? I think you should become an officer.

    I clearly hear a Colonel or General Stowell in some eventual future.

    Your friend always,


  3. Rank is retarded if you are a retard. If you are not a retard, then renk is still stupid because most people are retards. Just do what you want to do in a way that you can get away with it.

  4. Great post! I have to say that Esther makes a good point, but I still generally agree with your premise. Yes, we need leaders to make decisions as people are often indecisive, but are they not so because the system takes away their ability to affect change? However, even with empowerment, some will still not lead. We need leaders, but rank and leadership are not synonymous. People close to the problems understand the issues and higher ranking people in the organization see the bigger picture. Both TOGETHER should make the right decisions, but human nature is both for the ranked to assume elitist attitudes and the unranked to stop taking responsibility. Thus, we slip into the worst possible scenario - clueless high ranking ego-filled people making decisions about things they know very little about.