why do we need ranks?

Colonel rank insignia for the United States Ar...

Image via Wikipedia

A while back one of my readers asked me to help him in a debate he was having with the leader of a military simulation group he was a member of (computer gaming or Airsoft I assume). This “leader” was apparently against assigning leadership positions because he believed that there was already a “natural leadership” in place. Some people took it upon themselves to call the shots and others followed and he did not want to upset this “democratic army”.

Now, my opinions of gaming and/or MilSim aside, I thought this was a good opportunity to try to define MY concept of leadership, rank and the necessity of both..here is what I wrote.

A “democratic Army”…excuse me while I chuckle at that one. My drill Sgt. said in one of his first soliloquies..”This is the ARMY! This is not a democracy, it is a dictatorship and I AM THE DICK!!” Said for effect of course but there is truth in it. Effective military operations do not happen due to consensus.

If by “MilSim” you mean Airsoft or something of that nature then I guess you guys can run things any way you like, but if you are truly attempting to simulate a military unit than you should have a rank structure. ALL successful militaries, from the Romans to the US Military, have succeeded because of a clearly defined rank structure. Hell, a rank structure is what defines an “Army”…without one all you have is a mob. Rank structure is how an organization remains an organization. People come and go, they die, they retire, they get injured, they get promoted and move on. The “unit” remains because the rank structure provides…well…structure. Even with all new people it can operate as smoothly as it did before. In a “charismatic” group, when people leave it is no longer the same group in an operational sense.

I think your friend is confusing “leadership” with “command” (also known as management). Leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose, direction, and motivation. The lowest ranking person can be a good “leader”. Command is the authority a person lawfully exercises over subordinates by virtue of his rank and assignment or position. An organization needs both.

Command is how you sail your ship. The Captain of a ship isnt given responsibility for a vessel because he stepped aboard and began ordering people around. Should the Captain be a good leader? Ideally yes. But in the end what matters is that someone with a modicum of skill and knowledge is vested with the authority to call the shots. That is done by defining someone as the Captain.

Ideally you put good leaders in position of command, but even with substandard leadership, goals can be reached as long as a command structure exists. Thats why you hear all of those WWII stories of privates winding up sergeants or lieutenants by wars end. As the leaders fall someone HAS to take their place. To operate, the command structure HAS to be maintained.

Sure 4-5 guys can get along with no defined “leader”..for a while…but when you are dealing with larger numbers of personnel you have to deal with a concept called “span of control”. For every 3-7 people (5 being ideal) you need someone in command of the group. Defined leadership is the only way to allow a large organization to act “as one”.

Do you routinely train by “killing” the leaders to see what happens? What happens when the “followers” disagree with the “leaders” orders in the heat of battle? With a defined structure you follow the lawful orders of those placed in command.No matter what your leader says, in the real world military/LE operations are not run by consensus.

Even in SAS/Delta..sure they are more flexible in the planning process and less strict in protocol, but you can bet your ass that they adhere to a “who is in charge” system (based on rank) when the green light goes on.

In the real world simply “being the leader” (natural or not) is what is required most of the time. I refer you to:


The problem with the “some guys are natural leaders” meme is the question, “how do you know what a good leader is?” and how do you really know that this guy is the best choice?

Most people I have run into who hold similar beliefs as your guy are usually reluctant to tell the bossy “natural leader” to step-off..or is friends with the “natural leader” and is afraid to rock the boat by assigning positions. Trust me, you will probably find that some of the people your leader thinks are not “natural leaders” would probably turn out better leaders than the guys he thinks are “naturals” if they are given the training and the opportunity to lead. Most of the time issues like this stem from EGO. In a well operating unit you follow the orders of your commander. And a good commander realizes that some of his subordinates may be better “leaders” than he is…and he uses them accordingly.


4 thoughts on “why do we need ranks?”

  1. Dear tgace,
    This makes total sense to me. And by not assigning ranks, the leader is shown to be ambivalent about leadership anyway.

    Have a safe Memorial Day Weekend.
    Ann T.

    1. Thats what I thought too. People fail to realize the difference between leadership and command…and how BOTH are necessary in an organization.

  2. haha, I was quite shocked at first to see this as it would put more attention onto me.

    But anyways at the moment I’m now working on getting the decision making process changed so that it is the leader that get’s the final say on all things.

    It all goes back to murphy’s law that states “the hardest part about being an officer is that the troops don’t know what they want but the know for certain what they don’t want”.

    This was quite apparent to me when I was trying to get the team into using ranks. I knew for sure it was the way to go but people would not listen and since they had had direct influence on the decision making process I could not get it through.

    It took a lot of work convincing them otherwise by putting together a solid list of reasons why we needed ranks.

    The reason behind all this opposition is because most of them, including the leader have had bad experiences with poor leadership in another team they were in before the current one was set up.

    This meant that there were a lot of emotions surrounding it that clouded their judgment.

    I really felt like I was trying to convince an anti gun liberal why their beliefs are wrong (sorry for the political reference, I’ll stop now).

    When I first joined the leader told me about how decisions were made in a democratic way. I was quite skeptical at first as I’ve never really seen an organisation run like that before but I let it go just give it a chance to see if it worked.

    Now I know the answer.

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