Follow the Chain of Command for Your Own Success

It’s a matter of dignity and respect for position if not the person

Feature photo: U.S. servicemen returning to San Francisco, California (USA), aboard the U.S. Navy attack transport USS Randall (APA-224), in 1946. Naval History & Heritage Command, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, my father served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theatre. He fought on Iwo Jima, on Okinawa, and in several other land — and sea — battles. He was on a troop transport ship, “hauling a bunch of ‘jarheads’ all over the Pacific Ocean to help out,” as he put it.

When the war was over, Dad became a minister and never spoke of the war to any of us kids, until about the last 10 years of his life. (He passed away in 2019 at 92.)

The first time he talked about his time in the Navy, we were on a fishing trip to an “out-of-the-way place,” he had said (translation: no cell service), and it was wonderful. We were in the boat fishing, faces toward the water, intent on our rods and reels and the point on the surface where our lines went out of view, when Dad brought up some of his friends, how they died, and how awful war was.

I was fascinated but knew enough, even back then, to shut up and listen.

Dad told us about being at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. He told us stories about friends who had died and others who were badly injured. He told us about ferrying Chinese soldiers from one island to another as allies. He sustained wounds twice during the war, but he never complained about having to go. In fact, he admitted he lied about his age to get in early after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Over the next four days, Dad told me a lot about his experiences with “Transport Division Sixty-Nine” on the USS Randall, APA-224 (a Haskell-class attack transport). He spoke more and more about the awfulness of war, the pain and suffering, and the “way things worked.”

Included in the “way things worked” was the emphasis on the “chain of command,” which is what I want to impress on you today. That wasn’t a conversation he delayed until he was willing to speak about his time in the war. In fact, my dad spoke often about the rule of the chain of command, which according to him, was set in stone. You didn’t go “behind, over or around” those who were ranked higher than you were.

Dad talked to us often about “chain of command.” That part of his military experience was part of our training as his children. As a Pharmacist’s Mate, 2nd Class, there “weren’t too many people of lower rank but there certainly were plenty of higher rank,” Dad told us. The big deal was knowing whom to approach when. You didn’t just talk to the Chief Petty Officer without going to the Petty Officer 1st Class first. Then you have the Senior Chief Petty Officer, and the Master Chief Petty Officer, and so on.

It went on from there. I can’t remember the whole list. The only thing I remembered was an Ensign was a “CO” or commissioned officer; the rest were “non-Com’s” (non-commissioned officer). It kept going up to Commander, Captain, and Admiral. (Yes, I know there’s a lot of other ranks in between, but my memory is not as good as it used to be!).

“I saw Bull once (Admiral William “Bull” Halsey). He was larger than life, a commanding presence if there ever was one,” Dad told me when I asked him if he ever met an admiral. He was in awe of Halsey. Previous to this time, the highest ranking officer he’d seen was his ship’s captain, Harold Stevens.

“Always pay attention to the chain of command,” my dad always emphasized to me and my brother. “Know when to talk, whom to speak to, and what you should say before you open your mouth.” As you might have guessed, he was quite the disciplinarian, but he was also the kindest person I know. That’s another story.

The chain of command concept stuck with me all my life. I’ve never “gone over my boss’s head” or bypassed my boss. Even when I wasn’t exactly fond of my boss, I made sure I went to him or her with my concern first. I knew if I didn’t, I would not only be in trouble, but I would be betraying dad’s trust.

“You go to your boss, and tell them what you think, and discuss it with them,” my dad made it quite clear. “If they disagree, so it goes; if they ignore you, then you’ve bought the right to ‘go upstairs’ to the next line in the chain of command.”

I’ve always stuck with that philosophy. And, yes, I’ve had a time when I had to ‘go upstairs’ to the next level. You can talk about a horizontal management structure, or a “flat organization,” but, eventually, the buck stops somewhere, as they say. So, when you’re presented with that, not only learn it but live with it, understand it, and roll with it.

No boss likes to have someone “go over their heads.” In the old days, that was called “insubordination” and it was one of the worst offenses that someone could commit. Yes, I know things are different now, and we’re “all just trying to move the company forward.” But — again — going above the boss without permission is never a good idea.

Think about it. Do you want someone purposefully making you look bad? Do you think it’s a good idea for people to bypass you when you have responsibility for them and their work? Is it okay for everyone to skip you and go directly to the Board of Directors?

Certainly, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and everyone should have a voice in the company. Who knows what great ideas may come from conflict, from disagreement and from a contentious situation? But regardless of our differences, we should agree on these two things: dignity and respect. All of us deserve these no matter how angry we may become, no matter how much we may disagree. We should provide dignity and respect to all our colleagues.

My father never personally met an admiral. He never sought attention for what he did, or how he fought, or what rank he achieved. He was just an American, doing what he felt was right at a time when he was called upon to do it, and I am eternally grateful for that.

In spite of the fact that dad never met anyone above his own captain and never rose high in the ranks, he knew about the chain of command and the dignity and respect that came with that chain. I am thankful he taught that respect and dignity to me. He took lessons he’d learned to help me apply those same lessons with my career.

Whether I liked my boss, loved my boss, or really didn’t care much for my boss, I always afforded my managers the respect they had earned by gaining that position, by treating them as my superior and manager.

If you want to succeed and someday be that manager, then learn that same lesson, and afford that same respect to those who work as your management. You’ll want that same respect when you’re in that position.

Pass it on.

SIDE NOTE: My dad, George Washington Long, also told me — and gave me this photo — of him and his “buddy” on the boat. Dad is on the left. His buddy was Milton Supman, later known as “Soupy Sales.” Dad said Soup used to get on the ship P.A. system and tell jokes. He did his schtick about White Fang (“The Biggest and Meanest Dog in the USA”) and other funny stuff.

Most people know Soupy as the “pie in the face guy.” He once estimated he’d taken millions of pies in the face. Dad used to go see Soup out in Las Vegas, and said Soupy often recognized him during his show and once had him up to visit his Penthouse. (I think it was in the Sands Hotel at the time.) Anyway, dad had a lot of fun telling us about crazy things that Soupy did during the war.

Mark S Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues. UF Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the lab to the market, making the world a better place.

Originally published at the IncubatorBlogger on March 23, 2021.

Includes Tech Licensing, Ventures, and two business incubators, The Hub and Sid Martin Biotech. We are an innovation ecosystem.

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