Span of Control

Anyone who’s spent time in the military understands the concept of span of control. The basic idea is this: the average leader can control three to five people at any given time, maximum. A poor leader can control one to two people, maybe; a terrible leader has trouble controlling themselves. A good leader can control six or seven people, and a great leader — a true genius of charisma and organization, one in a million, can control maybe eight to ten at the outside limit.

3-5 people is a solid expectation for an average leader, and the military’s training program for non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers seeks to weed out all of the terrible leaders, and most of the poor leaders.

What is the span of control in military training? How many people can one person reasonably expect to train on a particular task? 

Obviously, this number will vary depending on the precise task or set of tasks that’s being trained. But generally speaking, a fair assumption is that a single person can effectively train between about eight to 16 people at a time, with a significant drop-off in effectiveness beyond that number. 

This is in part due to one being able to organize 16 people into groups of four — so that one is really expecting the four cleverest or most competent people to help train the others — but one still has some ability to work one-on-one with people even when there are 16 of them. 

If, for example, one is training the use of a weapon, a small class followed by a practical exercise may be sufficient. For small unit tactics, however, 16 is the outside number in part because one must be observing each of the four subunits; one is constantly running. It’s feasible, but barely.

Beyond this level, one hits a point of diminishing returns.  The only way for a single person to offer blocks of instruction to a platoon-size groups of 25 or 30 individuals is a lecture format,  which is of limited utility, and often utterly useless, when not backed up by some form of practical exercise; however, running a practical exercise for a platoon’s worth of soldiers is impossible for one man.

Iterative training can help with this issue: training in teams, first, then squads, then higher echelons. In this case, people understand organically how things are supposed to work before progressing to the next stage of training. The less a group knows, the more difficult it will be to train all of them at once; more time is always better, but at the most aggressive feasible pace, it is possible l to train people with no military experience to the point where they can begin drilling squad-level tactics within two weeks.

Ultimately, the success of any such training program – where time and human resources for training are seriously constrained, as is the case in the Ukraine context – is reliant on the leadership and initiative of the trainees themselves. Encouraging self-study, ownership, and peer-to-peer capacity building among the trainees not only encourages the values crucial to the armed forces of a free society but is also a crucial enabler for the trainer themself. 


One response to “Span of Control”

  1. […] how many trainers are needed? In another post, we wrote about the span of control a trainer can reasonably expect to enjoy — how many soldiers a single trainer can handle. We […]

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