The Underside of Command: A Leadership Case Study

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Author: gwhitehead

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Last Updated: 24-08-2016 14:45

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Organizational leaders are often called upon to make difficult decisions. Frequently, personal judgment is the primary decision making tool, especially when key facts are impossible or impractical to obtain. Executing decisions that have been handed down from “the top” creates pragmatic quandaries for subordinate leaders who may perceive and digest rapidly changing facts more  accurately than their superiors. This phenomenon generates moral dilemmas that can make subordinate leadership an especially delicate art. Walking a tight-rope between following through on stated plans vs. changing the directives of senior leadership at the executor level has both strategic and tactical implications. Michael Shaara’s (1974) The Killer Angels illustrates the complexity of this principle through the leadership decisions of General James A. Longstreet at the battle of Gettysburg.

The purpose of this case study is to examine the issues facing a subordinate leader in a complex, fluid, and high-stakes decision making environment when top-down plans are clearly not the best solution. The intended audience includes subordinate leaders that are near the top of the organizational control structure. Longstreet’s position as General, reporting to Robert E. Lee, the Commanding General of the Confederate army, can be analogous to a modern general manager, vice president, or senior manager depending upon the size and structure of the organization. The lessons learned from this case study may also be applicable to junior layers of management where decisions based on incorrect information are funneled down to subordinate leaders who are compelled to execute directives precisely.