Only he can command who has the courage and initiative to disobey

Only he can command who has the courage and initiative to disobey

In 1943 Winston Churchill said:

“First we shape our buildings, then they shape us.”

Churchill could just as well have said, first we shape our organisations, then they shape us.It’s all very well to talk about empowerment one –on – one, but most of us find ourselves within some sort of organisational framework.

What does empowerment look like in that context?

The assumption built into a normal organisation structure is that order comes through control, and that everybody is accountable to someone and the chain of command goes right up to the top of the pyramid where, ultimately the power to make decisions is vested in one person. While it is true that in most healthy organisations that one person is accountable to a board or some other structure, the fact remains that in day to day operations, the buck stops with one person. One person is the most powerful.

Good organizational leadership establishes objectives and then works to have a plan that is deliverable. An organisation develops resource through its activity and hires the people it needs to expand its operation. Organisations need a vision but often the people who work within an organisation would not see a lot of connection between what they do day to day and the organisational vision.

When it comes to people joining an organisation, the question is not “how do we help this person find their vocation?”, but “does this person fit our organization?” This way of seeing things runs the danger of reducing people to being replaceable parts of a big machine. Even the language of “Human Resource Management” is essentially dehumanising. People are not resources to be used.

One of the dangers for a world that is centred around organisations and organisational structure is that we can end up fitting people into a box rather than seeing our job as helping them become who they were created to be. When we take it to extremes, a management paradigm of control can be the antithesis of the Kingdom of God. Eugene Peterson, in Christ plays in Ten Thousand places goes one step further: “Sin reduces the people around us to roles or objects so that we can use them or manipulate them or condescendingly help them. They are depersonalized so that we don’t have to be relational with them. And, of course, the moment that happens, there is no love – there cannot be any love, for love is a relationship or it is nothing.”

So how do we organise ourselves in a way that gives people a platform and not a straight-jacket?
Most militaries are organized on the standard organizational structure model, with each corporate layer clearly marked by emblems of rank. The problem is, the standard organizational structure is terrible for making good decisions. The person at the top of the pyramid is usually so far from the action in the field that they simply cannot understand all the factors necessary to make decisions well.

I have a paper written by Capt M.M. O’Leary on the state of the Canadian Army . His point is that the Canadian military is in trouble, because it has developed a culture of what he calls “hierachism”. His believes that the army need to discover the German concept of “Auftragstaktik.” It is a fairly obscure German word, but it means that each German officer and NCO would:

“do without question or doubt whatever the situation required, as he personally saw it. Omission and inactivity were considered worse than a wrong choice of expedient. Even disobedience of orders was not inconsistent with this philosophy.”

I was fascinated as Captain O’Leary quoted from Gabriel and Savage’s (11) attributes of a good combat officer , that two of them were,

“Look carefully at a man who gets low marks on “tact” and who “deviates from accepted doctrine.” He may be creative.”


“An officer who gets low marks on loyalty is especially valuable, for he is unwilling to acquiesce to his superior’s policies without debate. He is likely to have an independent mind.”

O’Leary finishes his paper with the quote:

“Only he can command who has the courage and initiative to disobey.”

Auftragstaktik is essentially about empowerment. It places the ability to make decisions in the hands of people who are on the front line. I love that it evokes the picture of the band of brothers (and sisters) who are shoulder to shoulder and responding to the challenges that come to them, as they come.

Auftragstaktik can only work in small groups and requires that those teams trust each other and trust that they have the freedom to make decisions. Empowering organisations are ones that don’t try to control from the top down, but encouraged initiative and creativity by delegating authority as well as responsibility to the lowest functional point in the organisational structure.

Margaret Wheatley writes, in her book Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World , that we need to learn to look for order rather than control in our organisations. She says,

“I want to trust in this universe so much that I give up playing God. I want to stop struggling to hold things together. I want to experience such security that the concept of “allowing”—trusting that the appropriate forms will emerge—ceases to be scary. I want to surrender my fear of the universe and join with everyone I know in an organization that opens willingly to its environment, participating gracefully in the unfolding dance of order.”

The quest to bring order rather than control is a biblical principle. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, literally means for everything and everyone to be in their right place, “to be whole”. Wheatley is effectively arguing for faith as the basis of organisational management, trusting that there will be order, however she doesn’t have a framework to explain why or how that order will be created. The science simply tells her it’s there. We, on the other hand, believe there is someone to trust when we let go. Proverbs 3:5-6 says

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

For the Hebrew people the heart was actually the centre of the will, not the centre of feelings. You made decisions with your heart, this verse is calling for the kind of trust that Margaret Wheatley says we need, but trust and decisions based on the fact of a God who brings order, not just the hope that order will somehow mysteriously appear.

So the best organisations seek order rather than control, which requires a high level of trust either in the universe or in God, either way the outcome is that they create platforms for people to fulfil their God given potential.

I'd love to hear what you think...

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