Best Defense

We need to understand what we mean when we talk about command climate

By Andrew Bell and Kurt Sanger Best Defense office of command climate change The commandant of the Marine Corps recently issued a letter to all Marines regarding command climate. He wrote, "There is a disturbingly frequent correlation between Marines who act poorly and units with poor climates." The correlation has been identified in many of ...

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By Andrew Bell and Kurt Sanger

Best Defense office of command climate change

The commandant of the Marine Corps recently issued a letter to all Marines regarding command climate. He wrote, "There is a disturbingly frequent correlation between Marines who act poorly and units with poor climates." The correlation has been identified in many of the high profile, negative incidents involving the military over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those involving sexual assault. It is also often present in underperforming units. The focus the commandant has placed on the issue will hopefully diminish all types of incidents.

A major obstacle presents itself in this area, however. As often as leadership raises command climate, the concept is poorly defined and its meaning is not uniform throughout the military. It is discussed in many publications, but there is no doctrinal definition. There is a different answer to what command climate is for virtually every servicemember.

Even were there a common understanding, there are no DOD-wide metrics through which unit performance and climate are correlated. In an informal survey of service academies and professional military schools conducted last summer, we found that there are no separate courses on developing command climate. If it is addressed academically, it is done in the context of leadership studies.

Command climate is not exclusively a product of leadership, and the two concepts must be examined independently to be properly understood. Focusing on leadership ignores group dynamics, the influence of non-leaders and non-traditional leaders, and the development of "sub-climates" in small units. What is acceptable in a platoon could differ from what is acceptable in a squad or fire team; those differences are shaped by more than unit leaders.

This is not to diminish the role of the leader in creating a command climate. He or she will have more influence than anyone. However, an organization that expects its climate to be controlled by its leader without accounting for other variables does not fully understand climate, especially when the organization has leaders who frequently change duty stations, or may get injured or killed. A leader has failed when the unit cannot thrive in his or her absence.

Every organization has a climate, whether it is an infantry platoon, a high school baseball team, or a kindergarten class. The climate helps define what behavior and actions will and will not be acceptable to the members of the organization. In the armed forces, it is generally accepted that a healthy command climate is necessary for an effective and efficient unit. A good one can be a cost-free force multiplier; a poor one can cause servicemembers to make catastrophic decisions. For this reason alone, command climate requires careful study and attention by the military.

To emphasize the importance of command climate and its hidden impacts, research of the military’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that healthy command climates mitigate the effects of post-traumatic stress and improve resiliency. While the links between climate and effectiveness seem obvious, the connection between climate, PTS, and resiliency demonstrates that climate has second order effects. This should elevate the urgency with which command climate is examined so that it can be designed deliberately instead of allowing it to grow of its own accord.

Command climate is a vital element for individual, unit, and organizational effectiveness and well-being. It is a subject that deserves examination by security theorists and practitioners. As we continue to advance the concept of command climate development as a separate field of study, we hope to be joined by the service academies and professional military schools in this worthy effort.

Andrew Bell is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Duke University and a predoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University. He has served as an active duty Air Force officer and is a major in the Air Force Reserve.

Kurt Sanger is a major and judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps, and is an incoming National Security Law LL.M. candidate at Georgetown University. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or any other organization.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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