Captioned Above: U.S. Marines during a battlefield circulation (BFC) at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, two years ago. It gets cold at the stumps in the winter…not arctic, but chilly. 

Leadership requires that bureaucratic institutions and a rigid chain of command be bypassed from time to time. That is what BFC is about. Consulting is a dirty word to some, but occasionally an outside view of why things aren’t working the way that they should can be helpful. It’s part of what I do for a living – sometimes – when I’m not doing other things.

I’ve experienced this BFC for myself in so many situations when I was at the point of this or that spear. Subordinates don’t like it when the boss is “prying”, and bosses don’t like to get off their “overly large” asses and see for themselves, but if this doesn’t happen, things eventually break down – often at critical junctures. I have war stories but will spare you, dear readers.

Otherwise very capable combat leaders would express their challenges with maintaining good situational awareness about what was happening on the battlefield. They would be especially frustrated that subordinate leaders were not communicating to them what they needed, when they needed it and that critical issues were elevated to their level when it was too late to influence the outcome. These leaders consistently felt like they were not connected with their troops and knew they were not effectively leading their unit. Time for Battlefield Circulation.

If you read history, you’ll find that this is not a modern problem. As the ancient Roman state expanded, the problem of governing expanded and they dealt with this very same problem, often by my moving governors around to report back with fresh eyes. It only worked when the appointed office holders (a) were not political hacks and (b) told the truth about what they saw. So it worked sometimes and it didn’t work at other times. As the republic rotted, it all broke down.

The contemporary problem, shared by so many leaders, was that they were tied to their command post. They allowed themselves to be bound to their desk and tried to lead through email and secondhand information, instead of directly influencing leaders and their actions. They lacked an understanding of their area of operations and the challenges that their soldiers were having — information that should have been gained first-hand through direct observation and face-to-face dialogue.

What they lacked, in military terms, was an understanding of the importance of battlefield circulation. In business circles it is often referred to as managing by wandering around. I have found that it is that essential leadership activity of getting out from behind the desk and getting out in the field that so often is the difference between effective and ineffective leaders.

Routinely, I saw leaders struggling with issues such as why their plans were not completed as intended, why their troops could not embrace and execute their vision, and why it was so difficult to communicate critical information in a timely manner. And yet these were the leaders who were unable to separate themselves from the comfort of their headquarters. In business or in combat, regular “battlefield circulation” is guaranteed to enhance productivity and increase every leader’s probability of success.

Very few combat leaders are successful without regularly moving to a vantage point with a clear view of the battlefield, close enough to gauge first-hand the sights and sounds of warfare, talking to subordinate leaders and their soldiers, looking them in the eye, finding out, for one’s self, answers to questions such as: Are they afraid? Do they have what they need to be successful? Do they understand the plan? Do they understand their opponent? Have they accounted for risks? These are personal observations that cannot be gained from a PowerPoint presentation, in a conference call, or in an email.

Battlefield circulation is regular movement within the leader’s area of operations designed to enhance the situational awareness of the leader and those he or she leads. It stems from a desire to be with the troops, to be near the action, to be in the fight. Battlefield circulation, when done correctly, is not just random movement but a series of well-planned, disciplined movement and meeting schedules that position the leader, in the right place and at the right time, to influence the battle.

In business, battlefield circulation means going down to the shop floor, talking to the maintenance and production crews. It demands that leaders get out in the field with the sales staff; spend some time with the men and women in Research & Development (R&D); see what the marketing folks are up to; meet teammates on their turf; talk to customers. It means getting off our butts and getting out there with the troops!

Is this a common practice? Unfortunately it is increasingly less so. Too many leaders never leave their office or cubicle. We do too much email and too little direct communication. We let things come to us instead of intuitively knowing where the action is…and being there to help. We become slaves to our schedules instead of purposefully scheduling movements that will increase our interactions with others and enhance our situational awareness and increase our effectiveness.



  1. BFC/management by wandering around requires leaders that are willing to hear things they don’t want to hear, and don’t take it out on those telling them these things.
    Without this, the management pyramid goes into the elevated levels of ignorance – only being told what they want to hear, and passing the bad information up the chain.

  2. Lee Iacocoa used MBWA extensively once he realized he knew little of what was actually going on. So did my dad, after learning the “staying in the office bubble” lesson early in his commercial architectural career. Often, on his own firms buildings, he’d head to the jobsite with coffee and donuts to allow the subs and workmen a chance to chat “with the big guy”…he figured knowing problems early was less costly to budget and schedule while offering anyone access to him. A lot of good came from those impromptu meetings, including team cohesiveness. HR professionals today try to get this team approach by forcing pop-psyche techniques…never works. People like to buy, not be sold. By that example I do the same when managing a project, big or small..everyone feels like they have a stake in the result. Better all around.

    • It sounds so simple, but learning the techniques that make it work require that you set ego aside and learn to listen, and for a lot of people, it’s very difficult.

      • Dad never forgot from whence he ego. Trump is the same…despite being a multi-billionaire he’s not an “elite” – relates to regular folks. Another reason why the “special people” hate him…they would NEVER buy burgers or pizza’s for WH attendees or supporters.

    • A leader that can actually do that is a rare thing in my experience. Far more often that leader would come around to chew a little ass then go away.

      • There are countless accounts of President Trump doing that on job sites. He (and his children) discussed that as the secret to his success. This isn’t about Trump, it’s about characteristics of effective leadership, but it worked for Trump too.

          • By all accounts, he’s a tough, hard working, boss that cares about his people, but expects excellence. There are a lot of slackers who bad mouthed him. There still are.

      • Oh, ass-chewing happened as well, but only when warranted (like not showing up or not communicating if going to be late). These meetings with “the men” thwarted a lot of problems like that as folks knew what was expected of them. Effective leadership starts at the top, the boat is only as good as the captain steering it.

          • Napoleon went on campaign with saddle bags full of medals that he’d award there on the field of battle. He didn’t pin them on himself. And his men would have followed him to Hell — many did exactly that.

        • Camperfixer: There’s a good book called, “It’s Your Ship” that I recommend – on leadership principles. I remember handing it to a guy who paid me a lot of money. He said, “does this mean you think that I’m a bad leader?” I said you get 0/10 for leadership and a generous 3/10 for management. He never read the book. I hear that today he’s on the run from the law, hiding in Japan.

  3. In grad school, we MBA types did not call it ‘management by wandering around.’ Call me a nit picker, but the term used in academe was ‘management by WALKING around.’

    Difference? Nah. But all the great leaders did it: Hitler (for better or for worse), Churchill, Iacocca, Ford, and lately a great proponent of it was James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, former Sec. of Defense and the Marines top guy. He was almost never behind his desk. And he never bit the head off of any grunt in the field that told him about cluster fucks, SNAFUs, stuff that one would think the top brass didn’t want to hear.

    • Chewing somebody’s ass for telling you the truth insures that you’ll never get the truth again.

  4. Sure, there is MBWA done good. That’s an active-intelligent manager.

    The active-stupid manager, we call those ‘seagull managers’ as they float around, sticking their faces everywhere and shitting on everyone.

    • Colonels dreaded Patton, driving up to the front, and kicking their asses. Then relieving them and putting the XO in command. Patton knew that you lost more men by being timid than you did by executing a Blitzkrieg.

      General Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA was another one who did what he did pre-Patton. He had a claim that he cited that he had 23 horses during the War of Northern Aggression and 22 were shot out from under him. He was “a horse ahead” at the end of the war.

      Bedford Forrest to Braxton Bragg: I am not here to pass civilities or compliments with you, but on other business. I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You may as well not issue any more orders to me, for I will not obey them… and as I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.. It reminds me of something that Patton would have said to Field Marshal Montgomery back when Monty commanded him.

  5. I think it was Henry Ford who insisted all his new Engineers get out on the shop floor for their first six months so that they could get to know the product they were going to be engineering on. In my experience, the best Engineers were hands-on people. My Plant Manager back in Illinois, who came up through the ranks, had me take shop people out on new installations and check-outs so that they could see the product being used in the field. Some resented it, and some dove into it and came up with some product improvement ideas. The ones who enjoyed it usually became better employees and felt more involved in their work.

    I’ve known a lot of Engineers who could dazzle you at the blackboard, but wound up designing things that were difficult to produce, and/or unreliable in the field due to their lack of understanding about how their devices would be used.

    And the best Managers I’ve had were hands-on people. They made sure you had what you needed and what was expected, and then let you do the job because you had proven yourself competent and trustworthy. And they would back you to the hilt if required because you both trusted each other.

  6. I ran my own small construction company, we specialized in jobs others thought were impossible or too risky to undertake. I never asked any of my crew to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. I joined our local volunteer fire dept after some terrorists attacked my country on my 43rd birthday. I have since worked into a full time day supervisor with the department. I still get up in the middle of the night and crawl in the back seat of a fire truck and do grunt work. That’s where the real intel comes from.

  7. we called that leading from the front. and its another reason i think rotc should be abolished in favor of ocs, after a certain rank/time in service- gives them perspective. of course mavericks can be a handful, mainly because you can’t bs them 🙂

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