Longest known chain of command?



What's the longest known chain of command length for any government, military, or large organization, (legal or illegal)? For example, WP's abstract military organization chain length is 11:

  1. corporal
  2. sergeant
  3. lieutenant
  4. captain/major
  5. lieutenant colonel
  6. colonel/brigadier general
  7. major general
  8. lieutenant general
  9. general
  10. field marshal/five-star general
  11. Six-star rank/Commander-in-chief

This question was inspired in a contrary way by Is it really easy for people to get immunity?, which referred "an infinite loop" of bigger fish given immunity, which seemed absurd, since all hierarchies are finite. I started to comment with a guess as to feasible upper limits, having reckoned that 4 times that abstract military's 11 levels, (i.e. a length of 44), should be well above any reasonable upper limit, but then wondered if clandestine cell networks might have connecting levels consisting of a single person -- then cancelled my comment and posted this.

(If every level has more than one person, then calculation confirms that 44 is too high. Suppose a hierarchy allowed each member to command two people. If the world population is 7.6 billion, then a 33 level chain of command would contain all of them -- calculated by drawing a dot, then two branches each ending in a dot, and so on, then counting the total dots on and up to each level, (A000225).)

User James K. comments that "outside of the military people don't get commands.", and "Is a teacher in a chain of command that includes the Secretary for Education and the President?" Not in the same sense, no. But non-military organizations do have hierarchical powers which tend to increase as the level goes up. Rules of thumb might include powers to hire and dismiss lower levels, to increase or decrease rewards and budgets, and provide general or structural directives. Any one of which powers can exert a degree of influence that functions much like a command.


Posted 2018-02-01T09:16:27.390

Reputation: 11 325

Question was closed 2018-02-06T11:13:44.533

5Closers: Intuition fails me. Please elaborate as to how a question about governmental chain of command length is non-political. – agc – 2018-02-01T19:35:30.897

2How do you define "large organization"? That seems pretty arbitrary to me. You might want to limit your questions to government and/or military (ideally either-or, as otherwise the question seems a bit broad). – tim – 2018-02-02T22:02:11.660

2I feel like large organization is redundant, if it has a chain of command >5 layers then it is almost by definition large. Possibly need a disclaimer about not jokes. – Lyndon White – 2018-02-03T02:20:51.543

@tim, Organizations with influence comparable to a nation. Nations, large multinationals, organized crime networks, terrorism networks, revolutionary armies, religious hierarchies... – agc – 2018-02-03T04:04:56.323

I don’t know what the longest in the world is - you’d have to compare all of them to know for sure - but you can look at the full chain of command in the US here https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structure_of_the_United_States_Armed_Forces I think I counted 17 levels

– MAA – 2018-02-04T05:14:22.313

1I don't think this can be answered. Outside of the military people don't get commands. Even your example is questionable. Where is the secretary of defence and the secretary of the army. So even in the most clear chain of command, there is ambiguity. In corporations the situation is even less clear. Is a teacher in a chain of command that includes the Secretary for Education and the President? As for terrorist networks, they tend not to publish powerpoints for the benefit of the CIA. – James K – 2018-02-05T06:30:15.823

@JamesK, Please note word "known" in title, which eliminates unknowns, and "longest" which removes sub-chains from consideration, also the words "WP's abstract military organization", where abstract means "a simplification with things removed". – agc – 2018-02-05T16:53:08.730



The problem is not a hierarchy of ranks. The problem is that some powers can be delegated. Delegation gives one person the right to act on behalf of another person, invoking the powers that come with that position. (Usually delegation is limited in scope).

Mathematicians would understand it if the laws on delegation would specify that delegation must form an acyclic graph. Laymen would understand it if you explain it like not being able to be your own grandfather. But legally, this is hard to forbid.


Posted 2018-02-01T09:16:27.390

Reputation: 4 180

Would not delegation be role swap-out, leaving the chain the same length? (Example: if the actor playing Hamlet falls sick, and an understudy takes over that night, there's still just one Hamlet on stage.) – agc – 2018-02-05T16:59:07.110

@agc: That will be the usual case. The chief problem I see is when such delegation is not intended. E.g. when you have local and regional government, local government delegates activities of type X "up" to the regional government, regional government delegates activities Y "down" to local government, and nobody notices X and Y overlap. – MSalters – 2018-02-05T17:06:54.480

That's interesting, but perhaps needs a separate question. Let's limit this Q. to the simplest possible case of an ostensibly harmonious organization, while ignoring hidden bureaucratic overlaps and infighting. – agc – 2018-02-05T17:16:22.623

Good point, Congress can authorize the POTUS to engage in war, the POTUS can authorize a General to begin an invasion, the General can authorize a Lieutenant to lead the invasion on the ground, the Lieutenant can authorize a Private to capture an enemy tank, but the Private cannot authorize a random bystander to use the tank to blow up a guard tower. – Robert Columbia – 2018-02-06T04:49:38.360