Chain of Command Principle

AuthorDenise Tanguay, Tim Barnett

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The chain of command, sometimes called the scaler chain, is the formal line of authority, communication, and responsibility within an organization. The chain of command is usually depicted on an organizational chart, which identifies the superior and subordinate relationships in the organizational structure. According to classical organization theory the organizational chart allows one to visualize the lines of authority and communication within an organizational structure and ensures clear assignment of duties and responsibilities. By utilizing the chain of command, and its visible authority relationships, the principle of unity of command is maintained. Unity of command means that each subordinate reports to one and only one superior.


The chain of command principle is ancient, but its application to the management of organizations was only systematized in the twentieth century. Two individuals—the French engineer and executive Henri Fayol and the German sociologist Max Weber—contributed much to our understanding of this principle. In his book, General and Industrial Management, Fayol presented what have come to be known as the fourteen principles of management. These principles include both the unity of command (his fourth principle) and the scalar chain (line of authority). Fayol's principle of the unity of command holds that a subordinate should report to one and only one supervisor. Fayol believed that this was necessary to provide the supervisor with clear position authority, and to prevent a subordinate from receiving conflicting orders. Fayol's scalar chain principle states that authority and responsibility flow, one level at a time, in a vertical line from the highest level in an organization to its lowest level. This line of authority establishes an organization's hierarchy. Fayol believed that it was a management error to abandon the chain of command for no reason, but he also allowed for circumstances in which the chain of command might be bypassed for the good of the company. For example, Fayol suggested that communication delays might sometimes be caused by blind adherence to the chain of command

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and unity of command principles, and proposed what he called the "gangplank," which allows communications outside the chain of command as long as superiors are made aware. Weber also studied the problems inherent in large...

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