Command Decision

by Wiz

in Hollywood,Lessons

On the evening of Election Day I watched I movie I had never seen before – “Command Decision”, released by MGM in 1949.  Set in England during WWII, it tells the story of a group of general officers in the US Army Air Forces during the strategic bombing campaigns of 1942-43.

The movie essentially centers around three characters: 1) a experienced operational bomber wing commander (Clark Gable); 2) his boss (Walter Pidgeon), whose realm is the world of budget battles and congressional committees; and a senior staff officer (Brian Donlevy), who suddenly is put in charge of an operational unit with its accompanying pressures.

Setting aside the “Hollywood-isms” of the story, I was struck by the realistic portrayal of how different individuals handle stress.  I was fascinated by watching Donlevy’s character struggle with making his first “command decision”: the targets for the next day’s mission.

But it wasn’t about the targets per se – it was about the battle between what he WANTED to do (an easy mission) and what he believed he SHOULD do (higher risk, but more important).  He goes through all sorts of machinations – ordering research, getting staff opinions, etc. – to obtain the data “required” to make the call.

But what he was REALLY doing was looking for an out: a logical, rational, defensible reason to take the safer course.

I can so identify with this.  In my first deployment as an officer-in-charge I faced several key decisions.  As this was my first command deployment, more often than not I chose the safer course.  As a matter of fact, one of my big goals was to bring all my troops home alive uninjured, and to bring the aircraft home intact.  Sounds like lofty goals, right?  But what I really wanted, deep down, was to not fail.  I achieved that big goal, so by that standard my first command deployment was a success.

However, in terms of mission accomplishment we came up short.  It’s not that we didn’t do what we were supposed to do – it’s that we could have done so much more.  That first command taught me a lot about managing vs. avoiding risk, and on my next deployment I had a much broader perspective.

My big surprise: I thought making command decisions would get easier.  Not in my case.  I made better decisions the next time out, but the same pressures were always there.

If you’re at all interested in leadership, I highly recommend renting “Command Decision” (I saw it on Turner Classic Movies).  Some other big names of the era – Van Johnson, Charles Bickford, Edward Arnold – appear as well.  It will be 2 hours well spent.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anchored December 19, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Awesome blog! I am an active duty Naval Officer (Surface Warfare type) that has recently started a blog of my own at My focus is primarily on leadership (particularly from a Christian perspective) and will be chronicling my life at sea aboard a destroyer (beginning in a few months). If you (or your readers) are able please visit the blog and add your comments to expand the discussion of leadership for the benefit of all those in uniform. I will continue to hit this site for nuggets to share with my readers (being sure to give due credit).

Thanks for writing and Merry Christmas-


Chris Iwan April 12, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Great article on making command decisions. I had the unique oppurtunity to command three times. Twice as a Captain and once as a Major. What struck me about each command was how the leadership lessons learned compounded on each other. Even by making mistakes, I learned how to incorporate them into each command.

Another similiarity from each command, was that sometimes you have to make decisions that are not always popular with your subordinates. My wife bought me an artist print of George Washington sitting in his tent alone. The name of the print is “The Loneliness of Command.” Even though you are constantly surrounded by people, sometimes that is when you are the loneliest. When you need to make those decisions that you know are not going to be popular, but they are the right ones to make.

I have to say that with all the ups and downs of command, I would not go back and trade it for a thing. The experiences I had and the decisions I was forced to make helped groom me into who I am today. If anything, those decision (good, bad, or indifferent) mold you as you progress in your career. Looking back I hope I made the right ones, but if I didn’t, but if I didn’t, sometimes the wrong decision is better than no decision at all!


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