Laws of Combat: Decentralized Command

“Decentralized command” is a concept that meant one thing to, say, Napoleon's troops while he was on Elba, but it has some powerful implications for Dirt World leaders, too.

Here’s how Willink defined it:

“Decentralized command simply means that everybody leads. That’s what you want as a leader. Not just for everybody on the team to be able to lead, but for everybody on the team to be actually leading. It’s often counterintuitive, but it’s also extremely powerful.”

Hold on a second: Couldn’t that degenerate into a scenario where everyone on your team is leading in opposite, and not just counterintuitive but maybe even counterproductive, directions?

“Absolutely, that can happen,” Willink cautioned.

So if you’re serious about decentralized command, or just want to free up more time to focus on growing your business, start with the four precepts below for Dirt World leaders.

Lead with the minimum force required.

This one might sound pretty straightforward. Yet what does "minimum force" equate to exactly for Dirt World leaders?

Willink doesn't equivocate here: "Nothing, zero,” he said. “That's the minimum force required for a leader. The only thing you're doing is going out there and saying, 'Execute, execute, execute.'"

What’s more, in fact, Willink argues that such minimal effort should be treated as the hallmark of success for Dirt World leaders.


“Because it means everyone on the team understands what the mission is. It means they understand what their jobs are and what they need to do to accomplish it. They’re ready to go out there and execute.”

For Willink, it also calls to mind an analogous maxim: The less you talk, the more people listen.

Train people to take your job.

Sure, that might sound like something of an undesirable outcome. But Willink means it. Literally. (Remember his earlier point: Decentralized command is often counterintuitive.)

“When subordinate leadership is actually making things happen,” Willink said, “it means I no longer have to sit there and look over their shoulders all the time, so guess what I'm doing? I'm looking up and out to see where we can go next. I'm looking at safety from a high level. I’m looking at how we can coordinate other projects.”

Yet arriving at that point can only be achieved through rigorous training — training to the point where you’re effectively training people to take over your job. How else will you empower team members with the knowledge they need to stand in and lead in your absence?

Put guardrails in place.

What’s the difference between empowering your people — and setting them up for failure? Guardrails.

They're essential, as Willink explained: “If someone on your team has never done this type of project before, you can’t just throw it at them and expect them to get it right. You have to give them some guidance and a plan. But you should also give them a little bit of leeway and allow them to brush up against the guardrails of failure.”

Where should such guardrails be? And what form should they take?

Willink demonstrated how “guardrails” might simply mean asking questions during your regular morning meeting.

“I’ll go to a guy and say, ‘Hey Aaron, are you sure you want to pour concrete on this day?’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, I'm pretty sure.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, you know, your rebar isn't showing up until X date, so that gives you a pretty tight window of time to get all that rebar put in.’ And he’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re right, that is a tight timeline!’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I know, but you can do what you think is best.’ And he’ll say, ‘No, you know what? I'm gonna move it back to the next morning.’”

Willik went on, “What did I just do there? I asked some questions, using the minimum required force, and my guy realized his error, made adjustments and learned a better way to get it done going forward.”

Willink also emphasized one major caveat: Guardrails should preclude the possibility of safety risks — as well as anything that could incur major costs or damage your relationship with your client — for obvious reasons.

Take care of your people and your people will take care of you.

“If you take care of your gear, your gear will take care of you” is a gospel truth among U.S. Navy SEALS like Willink. But in the context of the Dirt World, he thinks it can be translated in two ways specifically.

First, as a safety protocol. Second, as an essential paradigm for thinking about human capital.

Here’s how Willink explained it: "The more I let my team take ownership for the plan, and the more I invest in them, the better that plan is going to get executed, and the safer it’s going to be executed, too.”

He continued, “If you invest in people, train them and give them opportunities to succeed and grow, then they’re going to understand why they're doing what they’re doing, and then they can make decisions and adjustments. When your team really understands the ‘why’ behind the right decisions — that's what decentralized command is.”

Next steps.

Ready to empower your teams, invest in your people — and truly take your business to the next level? Eager to spend more time breaking the dirt on new projects — and less time breaking your larynx barking orders?

Clearly, decentralized command should be part of the game plan.

Just start with the four ideas outlined above. Plus, find out how the best-in-class training solutions from BuildWitt can help you get there.