How Can Leaders Maintain Ethical Command Climates?

By: Dr. Rebecca J. Johnson

The field grade officers I teach often ask how they can set and maintain ethical command climates in their specialized small units, especially when they are operating far from the flagpole, and for long periods of time. Leaders can find this aspect of command difficult even when they have eyes on their people daily and maintain good contact with "higher"; without these factors leaders can struggle, for predictable reasons.

What is "command climate"? General John Loh notes, "The essence of command and leadership is to create a climate throughout the unit that inspires all to achieve extraordinary goals and levels of performance at all times and under all conditions, especially in the stress of combat."1 Seen in this way, command climate is the ethos of a unit, set by its commander.

When it is strong, command climate orients subordinates and enables them to excel in achieving their mission. When it is weak (and most people reading this column can think of at least one former leader who seemed "asleep at the switch" during most, if not all, of his command tour), the environment is ripe for the subordinate with the strongest personality to step up and influence the unit. If the informal leader is committed to the unit's mission and understands higher's intent, the unit may flourish. If the informal leader's intent for the unit deviates from that of the command or higher, the unit can very quickly find itself on dangerous ground. Finally, when the command climate is toxic (and many of us have been there, too), it orients and prepares subordinates to fail by stifling initiative, communication, and accountability.

On this point, let me be clear: Command climate encompasses more than morale. The commander's ethos sets expectations about subordinates' behavior. Does the commander enforce discipline? Demand integrity? Supervise? It is also more than command philosophy. If the definition of integrity is consistency in what a person says, does, and believes, then command climates stand or fall on integrity. A commander who articulates one set of expectations to the unit but then enforces different expectations through his own actions is setting his unit up for failure. As span of control increases, so does the challenge of maintaining integrity throughout the chain of command, especially as units specialize.

If we think about ethics as being those ideas and actions that maintain the standards of a profession (here, the profession of arms), then we can see pretty quickly how command climates influence the ethical character of a unit. Through their command climates, leaders can instill and enforce a unit-wide commitment to tactical proficiency, excellence, and growth while upholding professional standards, or they can undermine these commitments and, by doing so, undermine the standards of the profession.

Paul Bartone, a researcher at National Defense University, has shown that "hardy" leaders—those individuals who model commitment to the unit and mission, a sense of control over their choices and actions, and who view adversity as a challenge on the road to growth—tend to have hardy subordinates. 2 Leaders who have low levels of commitment, control, and challenge (those commanders who are either asleep at the switch or toxic) tend to have subordinates who admit to feeling alienated, powerless, and threatened. Under such conditions, ethics erode and unit members have little motivation to "do the right thing," especially when the right thing comes at a personal cost.

In small units, the dangers of a weak or toxic command climate are even higher. Two trends can combine at the small-unit level to erode effective and ethical command climates: 1) The strength of small unit bonds can create a parallel set of ethical expectations that may not comport with those of the larger organization (unit cohesion goes too far); and 2) younger members of small units become disproportionately influenced by their peers, thus turning the unit into a moral and ethical echo chamber. This may be acceptable in units with strong formal or informal leaders who set and maintain ethical command climates, but it can be disastrous in weak or toxic environments.

It is important to note that while leaders are responsible for and have a high level of influence over the actions of their subordinates, they rarely possess complete control over what subordinates do. Ethical lapses in a unit may tie back to a poor command climate, or they may tie back to a strong command climate that happens to be home to one or more deadweights. The existence of these ethical outliers underscores the importance of good command climates in units: strong commands can, if not change the behavior of deadweights, at least mitigate their effects; limit their influence on impressionable unit members; and hold them accountable more credibly than weak or toxic commands.

So what does all this mean for building an ethical command climate in small units that operate with high levels of autonomy? It means that the leaders of these units and their immediate superiors—officer, enlisted, and civilian— have a particular set of responsibilities. Some of these are obvious, but bear repeating. Others may be intuitive for only the most natural leader.

First, clearly communicated expectations are key. There are any number of instances in which leaders' failure to communicate clear expectations for their soldiers fed uncertainty, which led to a weak command climate in which soldiers felt alienated from higher, powerless to make effective decisions, and threatened by their situation. A weak command climate can motivate unethical behavior when soldiers interpret leaders' failure to stop such behavior as a tacit endorsement.3

Everyone is familiar with the amplification of Commanders' Intent down the chain of command. This natural desire to over-fulfill expectations can bring humorous results (Sergeant Major said to report 15 minutes ahead of the Battalion Commander's arrival, so the Gunny told his people to show up 30 minutes early. …Folks were on the parade field an hour ahead of the Commander) or dangerous misunderstandings. The more consistently leaders communicate their expectations, through both deeds and words, the better units will be prepared to fulfill higher's intent, even when they are operating at a distance from the command.

Second, command climate is a living thing; it is either growing stronger or it is growing weaker. Leaders need to focus on building their subordinates' ability to operate effectively and ethically under increasing distance, duration, and distraction. Some small units are intuitively more independent and can operate well far from base. The key is to maintain strong cohesion within the unit, so that geographic or tactical isolation does not translate into alienation. Other units function well closer to home, but struggle when they are more remotely deployed. Here the key is to build confidence and competence in unit members from the beginning, so they feel appropriately in control and capable (vice powerless or threatened) when facing more austere assignments.

Likewise, some units can take one set of mission-type orders and operate and adapt for weeks, while others require more frequent contact to reinforce intent. Leaders can help grow the second kind of unit by allowing increasing time between battlefield circulations (assuming the unit is operating effectively and ethically in the interim), rewarding initiative (even when it results in failure), and providing appropriate reachback so when the unit touches base, it receives the support it needs.

Finally, some units thrive on chaos, while others struggle to compartmentalize distractions. In these situations, reducing distance and duration to the extent possible can help refocus the unit. In addition, reachback is key to providing these units the support they need to focus on their mission, rather than on personal or other indirect concerns.

The command climate is about setting, modeling, and enforcing expectations for effective, ethical behavior by developing units' levels of commitment, control, and challenge over increasing distance, duration, and distraction. While these observations may seem obvious to the readers of Combating Terrorism Exchange, you may not have to travel too far down your chain of command to find leaders for whom this is not intuitive. Preparing them to build effective and ethical command climates all the way down to the smallest unit in your organization can't guarantee unit or mission success, but it will substantially improve the odds.

About the Author(s): Dr. Rebecca J. Johnson is an associate professor of National Security Affairs in the Command and Staff College, U.S. Marine Corps University


1. General John Michael Loh, "The Responsibility of Leadership in Command," 1: loh.pdf

2. Paul T. Bartone, "Resilience Under Military Operational Stress: Can Leaders Influence Hardiness?" Military Psychology 18 Supplemental (2 July 2006): S131–S148: http://www.hardinessresilience. com/docs/Bartone.pdf

3. An extreme example of this negative feedback loop is the abuse carried out by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. See the Taguba Report: AR 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade, (declassified 15 October 2004), 19.

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