[February 13, 2018] I learned a valuable lesson in command leadership when I was sent to inspect an army unit that had failed its annual GI inspection. I often say that leaders can learn valuable lessons from the failure of others and this was a case I would never forget. The unit commander had decided he would focus all his efforts on all the “big things” to correct and in doing so ignore the little things.
I would never forget the expression on the commander’s face when I told him he was being relieved of his command and sent home; it was as if I had kicked him in the gut. A new commander would take over later that day; an officer who was known for attention to detail but not for micromanagement. I saw in the actions of the fired commander an example of what not to do.
“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.” – The Atlantic Monthly, Broken Windows March 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling
The fact is that leaders fix the small broken things because, as the Broken Windows Theory1 holds, when those are not taken care of, it creates an atmosphere of disorder and lawlessness, thereby encouraging more serious offenses. Under New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani – starting in 1993 – small crimes such as vandalism, public drunkenness, and turnstile-jumping were targeted; eventually leading to a major drop in serious crimes.
There are those who disagree with the theory and policies that support it. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. said his policy to halt the prosecution of turnstile jumpers was implemented because it targeted mostly those without a prior conviction of any kind. Police will still be able to write tickets in Manhattan but violators won’t be taken to jail.2
Does this new policy send a message that people don’t care and that minor offenses are okay? If that is true, the Broken Window Theory predicts, by ignoring those little things, more of this behavior in the future. It is, however, interesting that one man, not the mayor (who also disagrees with the policy), has through his actions set up the city for a potential increase in crime. We call this command failure.
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