Unity of Command and Unity of Effort in Complex Operations: Implications for Leadership

By Josh Jones, Research Specialist, Center for Complex Operations

Responsibility is a cornerstone of military leadership.  I do not remember where I first heard the saying, “you can delegate authority but you cannot delegate responsibility,” but today it is a touchstone of my own leadership approach.  The predominant focus for officers and non-commissioned officers alike is the responsibility for the accomplishment of the mission, safety and welfare of one’s people.

Unity of command is a tenant of military operations that ensures responsibility.  The US Army Field Manual 3-0 Operations defines it as one of nine “Principles of War”: “For every objective, ensure unity of command under one responsible commander.”  This ensures that one person has ultimate responsibility for the objectives (and people) that fall under his or her purview, and at the same time, make clear to everyone who is ultimately responsible.

Unity of effort, though, may or may not be perfectly compatible with the responsibility that goes along with unity of command.  Unity of effort implies a lack of responsibility because one person is not ultimately in charge; rather, unity of effort requires coordination.  Either between the various US government agencies themselves or between US and international and local partners that are fundamentally necessary and important to achieving the civil-military goals associated with complex operations, coordination is as important as command.  As most practitioners and analysts of complex operations would attest, unity of effort is extremely challenging because there is no single, ultimate “responsible commander.”  If someone does not want to do something, he or she usually can figure out a way not to do it.  Following the definition for unity of command, Field Manual 3-0 states,   “Cooperation may produce coordination, but giving a single commander the required authority unifies action.  The joint, multinational, and interagency nature of unified action creates situations where the military commander does not directly control all elements in the AO [area of operations].  In the absence of command authority, commanders cooperate, negotiate, and build consensus to achieve unity of effort.” 

So, how do we balance unity of command and unity of effort in accomplishing the mission of complex operations?  How do we ensure responsibility in an environment where commanders and decision-makers do not have ultimate authority over all the people who are necessary to achieve their goals?  How do we train junior, mid-level, senior and non-commissioned officers to work in terms of “unity of effort” when the military ethos is primarily based on a “unity of command” framework?


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