This paper argues that leaders, historians, and pundits have grossly exaggerated civilian micromanagement of the U.S. military, resulting in less effective civilian and military oversight of military operations and a reduced likelihood that military operations will achieve strategic results. Exaggerating the frequency and impact of civilian micromanagement encourages military leaders to distance themselves from oversight and disinclines Presidents from exercising it. There is also evidence that within the military chain of command, an exaggerated concern with civilian micromanagement has distorted understanding of good leadership and the Joint Staff’s “mission command” doctrine, encouraging the military to ignore its own time-honored leadership principles.
Concern with micromanagement has become so widespread that it constitutes a deeply rooted cultural bias within the broader national security system. It is an especially keen concern in the Pentagon among both civilian and military leaders and among military analysts, many of whom mistakenly believe civilian micromanagement is a primary reason why military operations have been less successful. Pentagon leaders and military commentators also widely and incorrectly believe that harmful micromanagement can be avoided if senior civilian and military leaders limit themselves to different roles, with civilian leaders just setting broad policy goals and military leaders only supervising military operations to achieve those goals.
Such a strict division of labor between senior civilian and military leaders is a false and damaging dichotomy. The argument for this assertion is made in two parts. The first part is empirical. The historical record of U.S. civilian oversight of military operations since World War II is examined to determine whether insufficient oversight or too much micromanagement better explains poor strategic outcomes.1 The evidence shows that insufficient oversight is more injurious by far and that both the frequency and impact of civilian micromanagement have been grossly exaggerated, especially since Vietnam. In some cases, such as the Iran-Contra scandal and U.S. intervention in Somalia, poor analysis turned these episodes, which were clearly cases of insufficient oversight, into cautionary tales of harmful micromanagement. Such false lessons have helped deeply entrench the micromanagement “myth.”
The second part of the argument is deductive. A sharp division of labor between civilian and military leaders is not justifiable even on its own terms, given rudimentary requirements for effective leadership and the nature of our national security system. The case is made that good leadership principles logically require the conclusion that micromanagement can be helpful as well as harmful. Good leaders—both Presidents overseeing military operations and military leaders supervising their subordinates—must exercise oversight and thus, on occasion, micromanage. To illustrate this point, examples are provided of leaders who abjure micromanagement in the strongest terms but nonetheless practice it because good leadership requires that they do so on occasion. Taking into account what good leaders do as well as what they say helps illustrate why a blanket injunction against micromanagement makes no sense either for Presidents or the Joint Staff’s mission command approach to command and control.
Even though the civilian micromanagement myth is not supported by history or consistent with leadership best practice, it persists, propelled by false lessons from foreign policy crises and military interventions, as well as other factors ranging from human nature to the nature of the current security environment. The exaggerated concern with micromanagement has had major consequences, distancing Presidents from the military operations they initiate, contributing to the deterioration of good civil-military relations, and lessening the likelihood of strategic success. Within the Pentagon, current understanding of the mission command concept overemphasizes the dangers of micromanagement and seems to have disinclined senior military leaders from imposing successful tactics on brigade commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the Army’s own detailed study of brigade performances in Iraq concludes, we were thus unable to ensure the spread of manifestly successful tactics across the battlefield.
To correct the exaggerated concern with micromanagement, the military should jettison the civilian micromanagement myth and rebalance its understanding of mission command doctrine by distinguishing between helpful oversight and harmful micromanagement. The high degree of professionalism in the U.S. military and the complexity of the current security environment justify the current mission command bias toward decentralized decisionmaking but not a general ban on detailed oversight, or micromanagement, as it is more commonly called. Senior leaders are obligated to intervene and eliminate impediments to high performance, but only when subordinate decisions and behaviors put mission success at risk.
The key point is that when leaders decide to intervene, they need to do so for the right reasons. They should override subordinates only when they are convinced their broader field of vision gives them insights that those further down the chain of command lack—that is, when their privileged perspective allows them to see the larger enterprise is at risk if some particular actions are not taken. Good oversight is thus based on contextual insights derived from a broader set of responsibilities and resultant field of vision. In contrast, deleterious micromanagement second-guesses a subordinate based on a senior leader’s personal past experience or some other cognitive bias rather than their broader field of vision.
Besides this rule of thumb, some excellent advice from a U.S. Army War College study on civilian micromanagement is reemphasized. In particular, military leaders should not exaggerate instances of civilian interference or confuse requests for information with control but instead should engage civilian leaders in creative collaboration. To illustrate this point, the paper closes with a historical instance where military leaders fixed problems that impeded mission success. Such examples are much more uplifting and reflective of the American spirit than the historically unfounded and damaging micromanagement myth—and better for military morale as well.