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The Guide to Military Commander’s Philosophies + 24 Examples

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BLUF: This article is intended as a one stop shop for future military commanders to assist in writing their commanders philosophy. It contains my prospective of a philosophy, relevant articles, steps to build your philosophy and over 20 Army, Navy, Air Force and USMC commanders philosophies to use as an example. If you gain value from this article or think it would assist other perspective commanding officers please share the article and follow me on linkedin.
Word Count = 2300 words. Read Time = approx 5 minutes



Prospective Commanding Officers Courses

Admiral Brown’s Command Philosophy

What is Philosophy? and What is a Command Philosophy?

Whether you know it or not, you already have a philosophy. You already have a way to view the world, respond to the world and exercise power over your corner of the world.  Furthermore, if you have gotten to the point in your career where a command philosophy is applicable you already have a set way of leading that works for you, the people under you, and has been validated by your superiors.   However, as a future commanding officer your next step is to take that informal philosophy and formalize it into a product that your subordinates can use to guide their actions.

Philosophy. The word conjures up images of marble busts of Aristotle, professors in tweed coats, and dusty books on the meaning of meaning.  While the simple definition of philosophy is “The love of wisdom” Unfortunately that definition is of little assistance as there are many types of wisdom, many types to pursue that wisdom and many ways to communicate that wisdom. Even philosophers can’t agree on how this should be done.

A better working definition of philosophy would be “an activity people take when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves”.  Thus a command philosophy would be a document that outlines fundamental truths about the commander and the way he or she wishes to relate to their command. Once we first understand ourselves, then we can use that understanding to prescribe a course of action for ourselves. And only once we have set that course of action for ourselves can we then prescribe that course of action for our sailors. Therefore, one must first “know thyself” before even attempting to write a command philosophy.

Know Thyself – What are your “Crucible events”? and What are your Values?

In order to properly “Know thy self” one must first understand the formative and developmental events in one’s life, also known as crucible events. Crucible events are transformations that cause one to look at life differently, gain a new perspective on themselves, or change what they believe is meaningful. Examples could include combat, working for a great or poor leader, birth of your first child, death, loss of a job,  or even something as mundane as learning the value of hard work while working with your grandfather over the summer.  

Looking at your personal crucible events will help you bring your philosophy from the back reaches of your mind as you move to the next step of prioritizing your values.

Since no one can focus on all things at all times, decisions between value neutral priorities must be made. For example, both strength and endurance are both good, but depending on the situation which one do you prioritize? In addition we know that both generalists and specialists have strengths and weaknesses, but what type of team would you prefer?  Thinking through these priorities and clearly stating them in your command philosophy will help your sailors understand you, understand how you think and, more importantly, understand how they should be thinking when you are not around.

Below are some examples:

  • Present Benefits vs. Future Benefits:  How do you balance sacrificing present benefits for the hope of future rewards? 
  • Excellence vs. Compliance: Do you prefer rule based compliance or more flexible, but less organized,  excellence
  • Strive to Win vs Do not Loose:  Playing to win holds much more risk; is that risk you are willing to accept for yourself and your crew?
  • High Risk vs. low risk:  Do you like to play high risk games with hail-mary passes, or keep it safe with base hits?
  • Benefit the unit vs benefit the individual: Where do you fall out on Ship/Shipmate/self? Does the unit take priority above all else? Or are our individuals the bases of the unit?
  • Black and white thinking vs shades of grey:  Is there always one right answer for most problems? or is your most likely answer “it depends”  Are you willing to operate in the grey, or does every problem need a book answer before you find it acceptable?
  • Strong vs. Smart: Do you prefer being around smart workers or hard workers?
  • Standard SOP vs Diverse SOP: How much latitude do you want to give your people when executing your instructions
  • Operational Focus vs. Administrative focus:  Is it more important to have admin or operations at 100%. Is your hazardous safety program run so tightly that all work is stopped? or is it so loose that the crew is in danger?
  • Good vs. fast vs. cheep: all three have upsides and downsides
  • Minority vs. Majority: Similar to ship/shipmate/self. Will you benefit the majority even at the cost of the minority?
  • Generalist vs specialist: Do you want a shallow bench of specialists or deep bench of generalists
  • New vs old: Do you tend to believe new is better, or do you like to stick with the old and proven?
  • Do right vs do no wrong: Is avoiding error better than achieving success?
  • Wide Focus vs. Narrow Focus: Do you want to give a little energy to a lot of things, or lots of energy to a small number of things?
  • Quality or Quantity:  Is more better or is better better?
  • Decision making with 60% of available information vs. Decision making with 95% of available information: How much information do you need before making a decision and how does that affect the pace of operations?
General Milley Command Philosophy
General Milley’s Command Philosophy

The Hardest part – Brain to Paper

With crucible events, and prioritized values at the forefront of your mind it is now time to write these out in a way that your subordinates can read, understand and make decisions from. If your philosophy statements do not help others make decisions in your absence then rewrite them so they do. Here are a few examples:

  • We prioritize action over administration:  Do not wait until a product is 100% complete for my input. Even in Garrison I want you to have a wartime mindset of taking action, moving quickly and getting my feedback. A Good plan executed violently now is better than a perfect plan executed next week – Patton. 
  • We will strive for Excellence even at the cost of compliance: When presented with a dilemma of doing the right thing (excellence) over the book answer ( compliance) I expect you to do the right thing immediately and then notify me of your intended action.
  • We will keep a narrow focus: I want you to keep a narrow focus and always prioritize this command first.  Keeping with the philosophy of “make your bed first” We are no good  to the Navy or the Nation if we are not operating at 100% of our capability.
  • We prioritize self care:  The most basic unit of the United States Navy is the Sailor.  Therefore if the sailor is not operating at 100% they will be unable to take care of their shipmate, ship or protect the United States

Command philosophy Do’s and Don’ts – After reviewing a number of commanders philosophies there are a number of common errors and best practices that stick out:

What a Command Philosophy must accomplish

  • It must be the one document that answers the one thousand other questions.
  • It must be one page, easy to read, and easy to refer to
  • It must be easy for you to memorize and speak to it at every chance you get.
  • It must prioritize values
  • It must help others make decisions in your absence

What a command Philosophy should not try and accomplish

  • An everything is important document. The more things you prioritize, the harder it will be for your crew to adjudicate over conflicting priorities.  Saying you prioritize everything really prioritizes nothing.
  • That you prioritize leave, liberty, family or fun. (really? who doesn’t) 
  •  Restate basic rules:  Stating that “lying, cheating or assault is unacceptable at your command” tells sailors little. It may be better to say how you will respond if rules are broken. Maybe your plan is to remediate and correct  or maybe you have a one strike and you are out policy. 

Talk about your philosophy at every chance you get

This is where your command philosophy really adds value. Every time you walk around, talk to the troops, send an e-mail, or make a speech you need to incorporate that philosophy. Remember the beginning of our article and the definition of philosophy?  If you love truth and understand yourself then the  command philosophy is simply an extension of your beliefs.  Rather than simply a piece of paper which is framed and hung up around the command the philosophy becomes your well thought out talking points.

Command Philosophy Criteria for Success

When hard decisions need to be made and you need to decide between an ethical right vs right you can refer back to your philosophy. When discipline and correction are required you can refer back to your philosophy. When training your Junior Officers you can refer back to your philosophy.  You know that success has been achieved and your command philosophy has taken hold when you start hearing troops using your philosophy in their day to day conversation, or even better repeat it back to you during briefings. 

As your command philosophy is an actionable document it should aid your subordinates in making decisions. Look it over and ask yourself “How does this document help my subordinates make decisions when faced with the following scenarios?”

  • It is 2:00pm on Friday and all work has been done. Do your Department heads cut out the crew or keep them around “Just in case”?
  • Your XO gets an offer to take four untrained seamen on board for the upcoming month long exercise.
  • Do your Chiefs call 10 people or 30 people for the working party?
  • Does the XO hold cleaning stations on the ship for 10 minutes or 30 minutes?
  • How does the chain of command respond to the accidental damage of high value equipment?
  • The Combat Systems Officer has the opportunity to upgrade a system, but the upgrade also comes with some bugs.
  • The XO has the opportunity to move up an inspection. If you pass it will free up additional time in your ship’s schedule; if you fail the crew will be working weekends for the re-inspection. 

My Philosophy on a Command Philosophy

It may be ironic but the guy writing this article does not have a formalized 1-page commander’s philosophy. Rather than developing a traditional commanders philosophy I’ve developed three individual products that offer much more utility for myself and for my command.  Those products are CO’s Business Rules, CO’s Priorities, and my individual goals.

The CO’s business rules: A simple one-page document outlining how I like to administratively operate. It contains guidance on how I like to receive products, how I like to disagree, and the best way to present information. It is essentially 8 years of what I’ve learned about myself written down for others to follow. I give this product out to new check-ins and periodically refresh people on my expectations if I feel we are getting off track.

The CO’s priorities: A one-page PPT which I outline my major administrative and operational priorities for the week. While my operational priorities are more static, based on our training cycle my administrative priorities change frequently.  I brief this product weekly at my Commanders Update Brief.

The CO’s goals: My personal goals which I write down in the back of my green book and share with no one. Those goals are my encouragement to myself to live out my values and lead by example. They are to daily remind me of the leader I want to become with the intent of others seeing and emulating my leadership example.

Feel free to reach out and I’ll happily share my business rules, priorities and goals.

Example Command Philosophies

 If you are looking for a more traditional command philosophy below are 24 more traditional Army, Navy, Air Force and USMC command philosophies from 05 and 06 commands to review, modify and copy.

If you are current Commanding Officer or Executive Officer reach out to me on Linkedin I would love to assist you on your leadership journey.

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