[April 23, 2021] With recent comments by U.S. President Joe Biden about the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin, undue command influence has made a comeback as a topic of senior leader conversations. Leaders exert influence; that is what they do. But when leaders bias an otherwise independent agency or process, things can go bad quickly.
Leadership is not about a title or position. It’s about influence, the ability to get others to do something they would not ordinarily do. If senior leaders did not exert command influence, we’d have no institutions, governance, or traditions. Our culture would be adrift, and people would be living at the lowest levels of humanity.
However, undue command influence is acting outside the accepted ways of communications. When a senior leader, either intentionally or carelessly, makes statements or takes actions to influence, persuade, or oppress those under him in the performance of his duties, that is undue command influence. Such influence might not be illegal but is seen as unethical and corrupt.
This influence can be in the form of direct instructions, instructions through the staff or others, or statements and actions done in such a manner that the influence is clearly directed at the outcome. Joe Biden’s comments on the hotly debated trial of Derek Chavin before the jury rendered their verdict is a classic example of undue command influence.
Having commanded from Platoon level up through Brigade level, I was always careful not to exercise influence that would jeopardize the outcome of any ongoing military judicial action. If I had, the U.S. military would have called this “unlawful command influence,” a subset of undue command influence and is expressly prohibited under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
A good friend of mine and a Brigade Commander himself advised us to just duct tape our mouths shut when influencing judicial matters or issues that don’t concern us. Making comments that influence others can tread on an ethical line. Doing so shows a lack of discipline and sense. Avoid it.
What a leader can find difficult is understanding the difference between legitimate command influence, where a strong sense of vision and purpose is a great benefit and undue command influence when we need to keep our mouths shut. Knowing the difference is one of those skills leaders must understand, else they will find themselves rightly criticized and ultimately achieve the opposite of their desires.
Joe Biden, as well as the Vice President, should stay out of judicial affairs and let the courts go about their business undeterred by our Executive Branch of government. We all will be better off for no undue command influence.