Col Jernigan, Chief of Staff for Marine Corps Installations East, discusses the four categories of decisions that all chiefs of staff must confront.

‘Chief, the White House is on line 2. The First Lady wants to visit in three days.’
A Major stood in front of my desk and said, ‘The Weather Guessers determine there is a 78% chance the storm will form into a hurricane and likely be headed our way by the end of the week.’
A Corporal handed me a note, ‘The Commanding General of one of our tenant commands is wondering why the parking lot to one of his battalions is flooding.’
A third person said, ‘It’s going to snow in Washington, DC this afternoon, and the Secretary of the Navy needs to shorten his visit by two hours. What do we cut out?’

Codes classify job types in the military to match job requirements to personnel qualifications. In the United States Marine Corps, these codes are called Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) and denote everything from Basic Rifleman to Astronaut. Interestingly, there is no MOS for a chief of staff. Perhaps that is because the complexity of the role of the chief of staff cannot be summed up in a simple administrative code. Whatever the reason, chiefs of staff have a lot of ‘learning as you go’ and require a variety of skills. Chief among them is a keen decision-making ability.

I currently serve as the chief of staff for the organization that encompasses one-third of the Marine Corps’ worldwide bases. A typical day is filled with a variety of decisions, some of which are illustrated above (thankfully, these were not all on the same day – but some days are like that!). Good decision-making must incorporate three factors: the adept decision-maker must understand whose decision it is, the timeliness the decision requires, and how the decision is made and communicated.

Decisions that face chiefs of staff fall into four categories of responsibility. These categories of responsibility are as follows: those made by your boss, those made by you, those made by subordinate leaders in your organization, and decisions made by other staff members in the organization. Each of these decisions requires a different level of effort and attention from a chief of staff.

The decisions your principal must make, by definition of the job as a chief of staff, require most of your focus. The information must be gathered, courses of action analyzed and proposed, and the right people must be available when the boss requires input. All of these factors are in the job jar of a chief of staff. Some decisions can be made intuitively or by simply reading options on paper. Other decisions require opposing positions to make convincing cases. The job of a chief of staff is to coordinate the gathering and presentation of information in a timely and compelling fashion to give the principal the best opportunity to make a well thought out decision. Decisions for your boss come in all flavors and require a different application of mental energy and thoughtfulness. It is a chief of staff’s responsibility to know the difference and prepare accordingly.

While supporting your boss’ decisions is a primary function of a chief of staff, there are decisions only you can make. In my role, I have eight Assistant Chiefs of Staff who work for me. Each would be classified as Directors or Senior Directors in organizations outside of the military. They all have large teams to manage and speciality cones to run (Operations, Logistics, Human Resources, etc.). One of my decisions is to approve their vacation days. I have to synchronize their vacation so somebody is always ‘manning the tiller’. I have to balance the schedules of the principal staff officers and their deputies with the potential absences of the other Assistant Chiefs of Staff.

“There are decisions only you can make.”

In perhaps more than any other organization I know of, the succession of command in the Marine Corps is vital. Somebody is always in charge, and that somebody has to have somebody behind them to take charge in the event of A Very Bad Day. Approving vacation is a seemingly routine decision… until you get to the Christmas and New Year’s week when everybody wants off simultaneously. The best way to get yourself off of a Christmas Card List is to cancel Christmas! I have to decide how to manage leadership coverage for every section and balance the organization’s needs with the individual’s desires. These are my decisions to make – if I don’t make them, they don’t get made. You have similar ‘chief of staff’ decisions that only you can make. Make them. Nobody else can.

The third type of decision-making category of responsibility that chiefs of staff must be aware of concerns the decisions made by the leaders in the organization that are subordinated to The Boss. The chief of staff must support the decisions of subordinate leaders when they are in the theme of the vision set by the principal. When they are not on the correct vector, the chief of staff must help the decision-makers understand why the decisions are out of sync with the direction of the organization or principal’s guidance. A significant part of good decision-making throughout an organization is the ability of the chief of staff to provide a sounding board and safe workspace for others to consider ideas and options for leaders at all levels of the organization. The chief of staff doesn’t have the time or ability to make all the decisions in an organization. They must enable the decision-making of others in the theme of the organization’s vector.

The remaining decision-making category of responsibility is the decisions made by everybody else in the organization. These are the hundreds of daily micro-decisions teammates make to keep the organization operating. Are we preserving the brand? Should I schedule this meeting for tomorrow or Tuesday? While chiefs of staff cannot be aware of these decisions in their entirety, they serve as a barometer of the organization and need to maintain a pulse of what is going on across the whole enterprise. Personally, I do this by getting out of my office several times a week, visiting people in their workplace, and asking what they are working on. This stakeholder engagement technique helps me understand how the Big Boss’ vision is getting translated down and whether the organization is operating productively. Ultimately, chiefs of staff effectively bring information from the lowest to the highest levels quickly.

On one of my walkarounds, I discovered that our new accounting system was rolled out with an incomplete training package. People in the next building told me that they had contracts for necessary services getting dropped because the accounting system was not paying vendors. Within a few days, people all over the organization’s breadth reported the same challenges. I took this information to the Commanding General, he informed his boss, and we realized the entire Marine Corps was facing the same issue. We stood up as a team to address the challenge. Meanwhile, a teammate decided to focus on the part of the process where the paying system communicated to the vendor. On his own initiative, he worked late into the night and mapped out a series of steps to force the correct data into the accounting system.

The process was cumbersome and tedious, but it worked. He demonstrated it to me, and I again took it to the Commanding General. He then published it to the senior leaders of the Marine Corps, and the ‘solution’ spread to other organizations who applied it. The innovative teammate made a small decision to focus on a small part of a complex challenge that benefited the entire Marine Corps. Chiefs of staff have a responsibility to enable the decisions of others for the good of the organization. As explained by leadership author J. Oswald Sanders, ‘A leader must use the best ideas of others to make decisions.’ (1)

“Organizations work like gears.”

Another role of a chief of staff in organizational decision-making is understanding when particular decisions need to be made. The chief of staff is the keeper of both the principal’s and the staff’s flow and pacing. Some decisions need to be made now: ‘the building is on fire. Do we go down the front or back stairs?’ Some decisions need to be made soon, others later. An additional category of time-influenced decisions is where the most productive organizations spend significant time – thinking about potential decisions before getting to ‘now’ or ‘soon’. Therefore, the chief of staff must manage and assist all these decision timelines, from the ‘now’ through to the ‘perhaps when’. They must use the time available for decisions to be made ‘later’ and not get distracted by non-essential variables for decisions that need to be made ‘soon’.

Chiefs of staff must also understand how decisions are made and communicated. I have a theory that organizations work like gears. Imagine a series of intermeshed gears. High school physics tells us that each successively smaller gear moves faster around its axle than the one before. This means that when the biggest gear moves a notch, the next one down moves a bit faster, and the one after that faster still. So, if the biggest gear moves faster than one notch at a time, then the littlest gear at the end of the line is moving as fast as it possibly can. The same is with emotions and decisions in organizations. Suppose the leader at the top has strong emotions. In that case, these emotions are amplified throughout successive levels of the organization as each subordinate leader responds to the emotion and adds their own emphasis as the effects of the decision work through the layers of the organization. Thus, it is beneficial for senior leaders to make measured decisions with minimal emotion as often as they can.

Chiefs of staff need to think about the consequences of decisions. Decisions, by definition, come with effects. These effects have intended consequences, and sometimes, unexpected ones. When the consequences of decisions directly affect people, I have found it  helpful to separate the emotion from the decision at the start of the decision-making process. Examine the merits of each option, think through potential consequences, and decide what is best for the organization and the situation at hand. Then, after the decision is made in your mind but before it is published to anyone else – put the emotion back in to examine how the decision appears to other people, those affected by it and those observing from the outside. Usually, I find this technique to be a helpful lens to appreciate the impacts of a decision while not dwelling on them early in the process.

“Decisions, by definition, come with effects.”

Successful negotiations are frequently marked by outcomes where both sides gain. Win-win positions are also applied to decision-making when the decision-maker works to create an outcome where multiple positions are favorably enhanced. This goal is admirable. However, the chief of staff must recognize that win-win decisions are not always best for the organization. Many sports teams have individual athletes’ names on the back of their game uniforms to help announcers and fans identify them, but almost all teams have the team’s name on the front of the jersey. Similarly, chiefs of staff have to play for the name on the front of the jersey more than the name on the back; they must keep the bigger picture of the organization in focus at all times.

One of my responsibilities is to manage the payroll for the non-military employees in our organization. I chair the Personnel Management Review Board as a mechanism to determine when and how many new employees we can hire, or how many of those who are leaving we can afford to replace. Let’s say that the Director of Logistics wants to hire another employee. She coordinates with the Human Resources Director and determines that we have the capacity for a new hire. They then coordinate with the Comptroller, who determines that the organization has enough space to hire another employee in the Manage to Payroll budget. It seems like a win- win-win, except the chief of staff knows that a 15% payroll cut is projected for the following year. It is not in the organization’s best interests to hire someone only to let them go the next year – or to keep them and operate over budget. Chiefs of staff must always keep the interests of the larger, entire organization in mind over the interests of specific staff sections.

Chiefs of staff must have a bias for action. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, explains his perspective eloquently: ‘Be a proactive decision-maker. It is better to get your butt chewed for going too far rather than not doing enough. Remember, it is always easier to get forgiveness than permission.’ (2) Decisions are not like wine; they don’t get better with age. When the chief of staff waits, the entire organization waits. Yes, some decisions require research. Yes, some decisions are complicated and require time to work through the options and implications. Preparation takes time, but it should not be drawn out when it comes time to make the actual decision. You can increase the speed of the decision-making process by not waiting until the issue is in crisis before acting. A former 1st Marine Division commander was fond of saying, ‘small, frequent, rapid decisions will save you from having to come up with a big decision at the eleventh hour.’ (3)

Much of a chief of staff’s job is relational, and decisions cannot be separated from people. A chief of staff needs to understand the people on the team along with their tendencies, personalities, and capabilities when making decisions. Some teammates are long-winded or give overly elaborate explanations – best not to put these in with The Boss at the end of a long day. Other staff members don’t do their homework and conduct discovery learning in the Boss’ office. These types may be better to pre-brief you and answer all your questions before you say, ‘How about I take that decision for you and get an answer from the boss?’. Still, other teammates may be deliberate thinkers who need the exposure and credit for their excellent ideas. A chief of staff must know his teammates and his boss’ likely reactions to them or their presentation style. Frequently a decision can be made rapidly because the correct person is – or not – briefing the salient points.

Chiefs of staff are the caretakers of decision-making in complex environments and require a collection of abilities. They need to be fluent in the four categories of decision-making responsibility and adept at managing all their variables simultaneously. Chiefs of staff must prepare the boss for his decisions and coordinate staff participation according to the boss’ needs while making chief of staff-specific decisions in a timely fashion. Simultaneously, chiefs of staff must coach and support subordinate leaders in the organization as they make their decisions and keep an eye out for decisions made across the breadth and depth of the organization to serve as an effective conduit of information.

Chiefs of staff serve as an organizational lubricant and manage the human factors required in decision-making across the enterprise. These responsibilities include coordinating the timing required for specific decisions, communicating the decisions, and ensuring all involved can correctly anticipate the consequences and outcomes of decisions made. Leadership author Donald Philips provides a concise roadmap for helping chiefs of staff understand the critical parts of a decision-making process. He writes, ‘when making a decision, gather information and understand the facts, consider various solutions and their consequences, make sure that the decision is consistent with your objectives, and effectively communicate your decision.’ (4)

In sum, decisions are functions of the experience of the people who make them, effective use of the time available to decide, and the human factors surrounding them. More than in any other role in an organization, chiefs of staff must be equally adept at making decisions, deciding when decisions need to be made, and managing the decisions of others.

Mike Jernigan is a United States Marine and currently serves as the Chief of Staff for Marine Corps Installations East, an organization responsible for one-third of the Marine Corps’ worldwide bases.


  1. Sanders, J. Oswald. Spiritual Leadership. (Moody Press, 1967), 36.
  2. General Peter Pace, speech at United States Marine Corps Basic School, Quantico, VA, 16 September 1992, author’s notes.
  3. Major General John Admire, 1999 quoted in Freedman, David H. Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines. (Harper Business, 2000), 8.
  4. Phillips, Donald T. The Founding Fathers on Leadership. (Warner Books, 1997), 56.