Learning to Lead: Getting the Most from your Team with Command and Feedback

You don't want to lead like a general. Or, do you?

August, 2020 | Python


What's the first thing you think of when you think of leadership and management in the military? Is it a commander yelling into their subordinate's face? Or a General giving exact and explicit orders on what to do and how to do it?

If someone were to tell you they model their management style on what they learned in the military, would you want to work for them?

The typical style of military leadership is command and control -- telling your people what to do and how to do it. It's a leadership style that is unfortunately prevalent outside of the military and it's totally ineffective.

According to Jim Mattis in his book Call Sign Chaos, it's also not how the Marines think about management:

In the Corps, I was taught to use the concept of "command and feedback." You don't control your subordinate commanders' every move; you clearly state your intent and unleash their initiative. Then, when the inevitable obstacles or challenges arise, with good feedback loops and relevant data displays, you hear about it and move to deal with the obstacle. Based on feedback, you fix the problem.

Having never worked for him, I can't speak directly to Mattis' management style. But he spends a lot of time in his book on this idea of Command and Feedback and his insights on leadership are fascinating.

I think a lot of new managers approach leading their first team with something akin to this style oof Command and Control and that they often do so unconsciously. Hopefully they never indulge in yelling at their team. But it is common for new managers to think of management as setting a goal and "managing" each and every step the team takes to accomplish that goal.

That approach is as ineffective as it is demoralizing for a team. So how can we move from Command and Control to Command and Feedback?

Command and Feedback

Reading about this style of leadership made a lot of things click for me as a manager. I was one of those new managers who felt like they had to give really precise and specific directions in order for their team to produce quality work. Not only did I have to set the direction, but I had to very clearly articulate how to achieve it. If we didn't reach that goal, I would reflect back on how I had communicated my instructions, trying to understand where my directions had been unclear. With hindsight, I can see how ineffective that approach was and, honestly, how naïve I was to think that style of leadership could have ever worked.

Mattis dedicates a lot of ink to this idea in Call Sign Chaos: rather than giving explicit orders and micromanaging your team over the finish line, give them the objective and set them loose. Don't direct, coach!

The first part of Command and Feedback is to clearly state what it is you want the team to accomplish. What is the goal you're trying to achieve? Why is it important that the team achieves this goal? Why is it important to the organization, but also why is it important to you, their manager?

You have to state this in clear terms but you have to do so without prescribing any course of action. Instead, your goal as a manager is to provide time for reflection and positive feedback. Reinforce what's working well and get the team to think critically about their progress.

Trying to control and direct my team's every move quickly lead me to burn out. Are you surprised? I managed a team of 8 people. Never mind that Command and Control is ineffective, no one can keep track of every detail of every ongoing project.

I wish I could say I started a self-directed process of experimenting with giving my team more autonomy, etc. But really I just couldn't manage and control everything (obviously), so I delegated some of the stuff I couldn't juggle. This feels so obvious now, but I was surprised and immediately impressed by how quickly these projects were completed and how good the work was.

By the time I read Mattis' take on Command and Feedback, I'd arrived at a very similar place in my own management style: give people the goal, describe what it is you're trying to accomplish and why and then let your team loose on the challenge. You will often be blown away at the creativity and initiative of people when you give them a clear goal and the autonomy to accomplish it on their own terms.

Reflecting Back to Wise Management

The style of management that I try to achieve is what I call Wise Management, which I've written about previously.

The gist is: how can we be both supportive and demanding as managers? How can we lead teams that are connected on a personal level while being exceptionally high performing? We generally think of having a fun team as being at odds with having a hard-working and driven team. There is an unmistakably tension between the two, but it is possible to have both as a manager, which is what I call Wise Management.

If you think of these two modes of leadership on a scale, you end up with models of leadership that look like this:

supportive demanding quadrant

Many new managers are more inclined towards one over the other: being supportive or being demanding. Either they're really good at connecting with their team members or they're really good at holding their team accountable to achieving goals. Wise management is about doing both.

Bringing this back to Mattis -- that idea we have of traditional management in the military is very much an authoritarian form of management: you are controlling your team and directing their actions. Mattis' idea of Command and Feedback is a fantastic tool for Wise Management.

Explicitly stating a goal for your team (ie the "Command" portion of both Command and Feedback and Command and Control) puts you high on that demanding axis of management. The Command and Feedback approach becomes a Wise style of management because you're giving your team members autonomy and providing them with useful feedback. Both of which are tools for being more supportive.


Reading Call Sign Chaos, you get the impression that Mattis was bullish about Command and Feedback. While assigned to a senior role in NATO, he worked with a commander of a NATO member country who embodied Command and Control. This is how Mattis responded to that commander after observing their management style:

"Your staff resents you," I said. "You're disappointed in their input. Okay. But your criticism makes that input worse, not better. You're going about it the wrong way. You cannot allow your passion for excellence destroy your compassion for them as human beings." This was a point I had always driven home to my subordinates. "Change your leadership style." I continued. "Coach and encourage, don't berate, least of all in public."

If someone were to tell you that this is what they model their management style on, would you want to work for them? I certainly would. I would love to work for someone who would push and challenge me while making me feel supported and like they were invested in my personal growth. Perhaps most importantly, this is the kind of management style I would like to achieve and be known for.