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Trusting Imperfection: Getting Mission Command to Succeed

June 1st, 2017 by David Caligari

The commander also strikes and accepts compromises in his [or her] command: not all his men and officers will be perfect, and he must accept this fact and plan accordingly. 

General Sir Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force [i]

Mission Command has been part of the Australian Army’s doctrine for over a decade yet remains a poorly implemented philosophy. Effective mission command is a powerful force multiplier—increasing the potency of soldiers—but it is a difficult philosophy for commanders to adopt. There is cognitive bias preventing its use: commanders are hesitant to provide the trusting environment which enables Mission Command. The strategic implications of a single soldier’s actions and the availability of technology reduce the likelihood that commanders will embrace an environment of trust. However, a commitment to Mission Command can revitalise this philosophy.

What is Mission Command?

Mission Command, or Auftragstaktik, is widely regarded as the superior command philosophy in military history.[ii] It offers unrivalled speed and flexibility in decision making. The Australian Army adopted the concept as the successor to ‘directive control’ in 2003.[iii] A disciple of Mission Command need only outline to subordinates the task and result required, the available resources and any constraints. Subordinates then have the freedom to decide how to achieve the task.[iv] Once tasked, subordinates are trusted to complete the mission without direct command intervention. The key to successful mission command is trust—between commander and subordinates.

Despite its potential, Mission Command is difficult to implement by commanders on the modern battlespace. Humans are primed to consider the most immediate, short-term risks that affect them. Since they are only human, individual commanders are almost always going to weight near-risks as more important than mid- to long-term risks that are further from their control.[v] The focus on reducing risk in the near-term can compromise the trusting environment required for Mission Command.

The ‘strategic corporal’ dilemma degrades Mission Command

The emergence of the ‘strategic corporal’—a term used to describe a junior leader whose actions in the tactical space can have an outsized effect on strategy-level decision making—has disrupted the culture of commander/subordinate trust. The strategic corporal’s power comes from the ubiquity of media on the modern battlefield. For example, a posted video of Australian soldiers using inappropriate slang can easily attract international scrutiny. The modern battlefield denies leaders the authority to resolve problems isolated from public interest. The media cycle creates an immediate and dramatic escalation of issues to a position outside the hands of commanders. Commanders have to grapple with finding a response, often producing a ‘risk-reduction mentality’ which then restricts subordinates freedom of action.

Technology makes Mission Command more difficult

Combat commanders are enabled by technology to reach down the chain of command. Technology has allowed a culture of micromanagement to seep into command. Military blog Breaking Defense quotes a US Army War College faculty member: “I have had four-star generals who [said], ‘I want the [radio] frequency to the platoon that’s out there’”.[vi] Senior officers have no desire to dominate the decisions of junior commanders. However, senior commanders can see the ‘worst day of their career’ approaching them as they watch the number three rifleman approaching the enemy compound. It is difficult to suppress the urge to reach down and remind the soldier to “be careful.” This urge can be countered by an affirmation of mission command.

Importance of trust

Mission command is not just a method of control; it is a cultural philosophy that demands trust.[vii] Commanders must make better efforts to counter modern trends which degrade this culture. This must be conducted during planning and in execution. In planning, commander’s guidance should be minimal in substance and focus on intent, over all else. As General Smith highlighted above, mission command is not about boxing subordinates into a course of action, it is about stewarding them in the right direction. In execution, commanders must have faith in their subordinates—they will do their best with the training they have had.

A way forward?

Trust can be reaffirmed with a commitment to Mission Command. Mission Command is inconsistently applied in the Army—breeding misunderstanding that destroys trust. The US has taken an important step to correct this. In 2012 the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared the importance of this philosophy with a ‘Mission Command White Paper.’ This provides the Australian Army with a valuable model.

For example, the removal of mission command from LWD 0-0 Command, Leadership and Management and the creation of a standalone document could perhaps solidify Army’s application of Mission Command. This would be an important symbolic gesture. Commanders hold the internal desire to counter the cognitive bias preventing Mission Command, this is present in all humans. A reaffirmation will grant them mental permission to place risks in their context and see the big picture.

There is no better time to release a Mission Command directive. Australia is and will remain at war for the foreseeable future. Mission Command should be used during peacetime to develop decisiveness and initiative which can easily be translated into a warfighting environment.[viii] Subordinates should be encouraged to try new approaches and enthusiasm should never be expunged. Trust created by faith will bring speed and flexibility in decision making—essential to be competitive on the modern battlefield.


About the author

David Caligari is an Infantry Officer posted to the School of Infantry.


Endnotes
[i] General Rupert Smith (retired), 2005, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, p. 66.
[ii] Muth, J. (2016). The Language of Mission Command and the Necessity of an Historical Approach. The Strategy Bridge, accessible at: https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/6/4/the-language-of-mission-command-and-the-necessity-of-an-historical-approach
[iii] Department of Defence. (2003). LWD 0-0, Command, Leadership and Management.
[iv] Department of Defence. (2009). ADDP 00.1, Command and Control. 1st Ed, accessible at: http://docslide.us/documents/addp-001-command-and-control.html
[v] De Becker, G. (1997). The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, loc 576.
[vi] Freedberg Jnr, SJ. (2017, May 05). Let Leaders Off the Electronic Leash: CSA Milley. Breaking Defense, accessible at: http://breakingdefense.com/2017/05/let-leaders-off-the-electronic-leash-csa-milley/?utm_content=buffera8a33&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer.
[vii] Vandergriff, D. (2014). The Basics: Developing Leaders for Mission Command. The Strategy Bridge, accessible at: https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2014/5/20/the-basics-developing-leaders-for-mission-command
[viii] Department of Defence (2009). ADDP 00.1, Command and Control. 1st Ed, accessible at: http://docslide.us/documents/addp-001-command-and-control.html

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2 Comments on "Trusting Imperfection: Getting Mission Command to Succeed"

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Great job, David. My question to you, is your are right in this article, nothing wrong with it, but how do you develop for Mission Command? (look me up to find out). I have a workshop that I have taught several times, about 70 times in the last five years. I also have a Mission Command page on Facebook.

I appreciate this discussion on Miision Command, and concur with the author’s premise that, in the US Army at least, the philosophy of Mission Command remains unrealized. I would offer that one of the major reasons for this is that in order for MC to work, commanders must be able to visualize and describe a desired end state to ther subordinates, but too often I’ve witnessed commanders who are not only not proficient at communicating good intent, they often abrogate their responsibility to write the commander’s intent to their staff! The first thing we need to fix is to put… Read more »
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