Command Failure and the Little Things

By | February 13, 2018

[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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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

2 thoughts on “Command Failure and the Little Things

  1. Jimmy the Staight Man

    I studied the broken windows t while in college during my junior year majoring in criminology. it was fun to run scenarios with our professor who was abit of a nerd. now i see what he was talking about. sorry prof. /snark off

  2. William Cartegena, Jr.

    Good analysis regarding how the little things matter. Attention to detail is important as well as insuring the “little” work gets done. I would argue that the Broken Windows Theory is a solid idea that simplifies some of the more complex interactions within societies and its cities, landscapes, and even in its complex organizations. What will become of new York city? Most predict increased crime but it will take several years and can then be blamed on other factors (those that the broken window theory only glosses over).

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