Revisiting the Chain of Command Concept

The concept of “chain of command,” along with other leadership and management principles that were not formally published until the 20th century, has been practiced since the ancient times by military and other organizations. For one, Alexander The Great conquered territories far beyond his domain by using an effective command chain to communicate and control his subordinate commanders. For another, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who attempted to equal or surpass the exploits of Alexander The Great, utilized a robust structure to exercise control of his lower echelon units that included a special, self-sustained formation, called Army Corps, which operated independently far from the edges of the immediate battlefield to accomplish specific missions.

It was only in 1916, however, that the term “chain of command” emerged in a formal publication. Henri Fayol, a French mining engineer, released his “14 Principles of Management” in the book “Administration Industrielle de Generale.” Two of these 14 principles –unity of command and scalar chain– became the bases of what is now termed as “chain of command.” Along with Frederick Taylor, Max Weber and some others, Fayol popularized the classical management theory that there is but one best organizational structure that would fit all types of organization without due regard to size, technology, workforce or environment to make them efficient — the bureaucracy. Such structure reflects the “logic of efficiency.”

The incredible advances in technology in the last 30 years led to the creation of new forms of organization. These organizations have unconventional structures that pose challenge to the concept of chain of command. With these recent changes can maritime security agencies, with their bureaucratic structures, address threats that emanate from non-state players or groups that use new, internet-based structures? Is there a need to strengthen the chain of command or adapt new structures?

Foundations of Chain of Command.

Some people look at the “Ten Commandments” as the original chain of command because each “command” is as forceful and demanding as the others. For military men, civil servants, organizational leaders, and the less- and non-religious individuals, the chain of command consists of common terms:  command, control, responsibility, delegation, cooperation, esprit de corps, communication, teamwork, professionalism and organizational chart. These terms that characterize the chain of command came from the theory of organization.

Organizations are a social arrangement designed to attain controlled performance in pursuit of collective goals, according to Huczynski and Buchanan. Forming an organization involves setting standards, measuring performance, comparing actual outputs with standards, and taking corrective actions, if necessary. The hallmarks of an organization are performance and control. Most organizations have six parts as identified by Henry Mintzberg:  strategic apex (top leaders), middle line (operational leaders), operating core (rank and file), techno-structure (systems planners/designers), staff support (administrative/logistics/finance) and ideology (collective/binding ethos and norms). To achieve the organizational aims in accordance with the set standards, organizations design their structure based on their objectives, strategy and operating environment.
The organizational structure depicts the arrangement of lines of authority, reporting relationships, rights and duties. It also determines how roles, power and responsibilities are assigned, controlled and coordinated. The organizational structure is illustrated in a chart, which showcases how the organization intends authority, responsibility and information to flow within its formal structure. The organizational chart assigns people into units or departments, shows the span of control, specifies the number of hierarchical levels, puts the formal reporting channels, and depicts the system to ensure effective communication. The chain of command is based on the structure clearly demonstrated in the organizational chart.

What is Chain of Command?

Chain of Command is a formal line of authority, communication and responsibility from the top of the organization, or strategic apex, to the bottom, or the operating core. It clarifies who reports to whom and establishes order in which authority, with attendant power, is wielded and delegated from the highest echelon to the lowest hierarchical level. Each level is considered a link in the chain, and each link represents a commander with authority and responsibility. Fayol posited that the more clear-cut the chain of command, the more effective the decision making and greater the efficiency. The logic of efficiency emanates from functional division of work, hierarchical relationship, bureaucratic forms of control, narrow supervisory span and closely prescribed roles.

The chain of command keeps order and control, ensures that directives and information are passed downwards, enhances discipline and reinforces accountability. It works by delegating authority, monitoring efficiency, coordinating effective use of resources, and building up teamwork, esprit de corps and cooperation. The command chain performs best with professional workforce that is highly competent, psychologically committed and imbued with character that manifests honesty, integrity, humility and moral courage. Just like an anchored ship, the strength of the entire chain of command is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.

While observing the chain of command is fundamental in achieving efficiency, it also misses some opportunities. Some information requires faster decision-making especially in addressing customers’ needs or unforeseen situations. Seeking approval or disapproval on urgent matters through the chain may take time. In such situations the lower echelon commanders could either take the initiative by making decisions as they deem fit, or just wait for higher ups to decide before acting on the matter at all.

Command Responsibility.

Being part of the chain of command entails responsibility and accountability. In 6 B.C., Sun Tzu ordered his commanders to take responsibility for the civility of their subordinates. In 1439, King Charles of Orleans decreed that his commanders were to be held responsible should their men commit crimes against civilian population. In 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln promulgated the Lieber Code that provided humane and ethical treatment of war prisoners. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 institutionalized the laws and customs of war or armed conflict that would prevent unnecessary sufferings of protagonists and unintended victims, and destruction of cultural properties in the conflict zone. Likewise, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and 1977 formulated the International Humanitarian Law and additional protocols for state and non-state parties involved in armed conflict, and the treatment of POWs and non-combatants.

In the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Circular 28 highlights that “the military commander is responsible for whatever his unit does or fails to do.” In the Philippine national police and other law enforcement agencies, Presidential Executive Order Number 226 makes officials and supervisors accountable for “neglect of duty” for failure to take preventive or corrective action before, during or immediately after, the commission of a crime.

Command responsibility is generally defined as the accountability of an armed force commander for the acts of his/her subordinates. It includes the duty to be instantly informed of the way the men carry out the tasks assigned to them. Control and supervision are the essence of command responsibility.

The Practice of Chain of Command.

The one on top of the chain must have a mechanism to ensure that those below comply with the orders or directives emanating from issuing authority. This system is what is termed as Command and Control, or C2. It is a set of organizational attributes and processes by which the organization mobilizes and employs human, physical and information resources to solve problems associated with mission to accomplish it. C2 is principally focused on operations that starts with planning followed by preparation and then the actual execution. Assessment completes the operations cycle.

The practice of chain of command is best depicted in the conduct of operations by uniformed, armed services. Best laid plans could either go as intended or awry. The 2015 Mamasapano incident in Maguindanao province of Mindanao is an example of a good operations plan with a bad chain of command and absence of command responsibility. The top commander, who personally got the briefing before the actual conduct of operations, bypassed two links in the chain and shied away from accepting command responsibility for the large number of death of elite policemen. A field commander, in whose area the incident occurred and who had the wherewithal, did not employ his air gunships and other vital assets that could have prevented the further slaughter of government troops by the enemy. Some quarters viewed this as either that field commander received orders from the top commander to abandon the beleaguered troops to preserve the Peace Process or his way of expressing disgust for being out of the loop in the planning and actual execution. Everybody pointed the blame to the operational commander. Results: principal target (an international terrorist) killed; 44 participating troops killed and some at point-blank distance; undetermined number of government-issued firearms and equipment lost; and relief and prosecution of the operational commander. Not one killer of the beleaguered policemen was captured nor put behind bars. Outcome: diminished morale of the troops and immediate justice was denied to the victims.

Contrast this with the 2013 Lahad Datu incident in Sabah, Malaysia.  When the intruders established pockets of influence inland, the state police commissioner took all the necessary steps to dislodge and arrest them. Instead of getting relieved for that inland intrusion reflective of failure of intelligence, the top commander in Kuala Lumpur provided everything needed by the police commander, from military war chest to local civilian leaders’ and population support, during the dislodgement operations. The chain of command worked and the police commander accepted command responsibility. Results: intruders were either killed or captured; the police commissioner got promoted in rank; and the creation of Eastern Sabah Security Command with military-civil servants partnership.  Outcome:  improved morale of the troops and swift resolution of the incident.

These two incidents show that results and outcomes of operations are reflections of the type of chain of command executed, which is crucial in establishing control and accountability in the field. The more clear-cut the chain of command, the more effective the decision-making, and the greater the efficiency of operation.  Whoever is at the apex of the command chain must possess full appreciation of the concept.  Short cuts could undermine the very foundation of the chain of command and deliver devastating results and outcomes.


With new types of organizations emerging from the continuing information revolution, will the chain of command still work? Recent reports indicated that a terrorist group succeeded in using a new web application in inflicting physical harm, including death, on some people in Paris. The speed of giving instructions to the individual terrorist with such mission and the delay in intercepting those directives by the authorities due to hierarchal structures in the flow of information contributed to the swift execution of the terrorist operations.  Similar incidents could happen on merchant ships especially on cruise or passenger ships. Are concerned security agencies prepared to confront such threats?

Fayol’s theory that there is but one best structure to fit any organization to attain the desirable level of efficiency by adopting the hierarchical model with the chain of command in place may not be able to address the emerging organizational types. Already, the so-called “virtual” and “network” organizations practically operate in boundary-less domain with enormous speed and voluminous transactions. Advanced armed forces and police organizations have capabilities to counter threats in the maritime sphere but for less-advanced security forces the challenge of protecting their maritime areas from terrorism, piracy and other crimes will continue.

Dealing with security threats posed by non-traditional organizations requires adaptation but not necessarily discarding the whole concept of the chain of command. Inter-agency cooperation and collaboration like the National Coast Watch System, public-private security dialogues at the grassroots level with the local government units and the religious organizations at the forefront, international and regional security arrangements, and capability building for effective command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for security units and elements will entail serious planning, considerable resources and strong political will to be effective.