Empowering a Mission Command Climate
Jason M. Payne
In 2012, the Army adopted the term mission command from the German army’s auftragstaktik, which loosely translates to mission-type tactics (Bab.la, n.d.). Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-0, the doctrine that governs mission command, recently underwent a mild makeover in July 2019 after enduring seven years of mischaracterization and ambiguity from leaders at all levels. The Army restored the term command and control (C2) in order to better align with sister services and coalition partners while employing elements of mission command to synchronize its warfighting functions (United States Army Combined Arms Center, n.d.). This essay will summarize some of the key changes and discuss four essential tasks that are imperative to engraining mission command into the lifeblood of an organization.
Revising the Concepts of Mission Command and C2
The term mission command “created unforeseen ambiguity” and eschewed what mission command was actually meant to be (Department of the Army, 2019, p. vii). It eroded expectation management concerning decentralized leadership and decision making. The term C2 was reintroduced as the Army’s strategic-, organizational-, and tactical-style of governorship while the core principles of mission command were retained. Additionally, mission command transitioned from being comprised of six principles to seven elements. The key words for each tenet remained unchanged, but ADP 6-0 added the element of competence. These leadership elements enable commanders to accomplish the four tasks required of the C2 while harmonizing the remaining warfighting functions: fires, intelligence, protection, sustainment, and movement and maneuver (Department of the Army, 2019, p. 1-20). In order to avoid mistakes of the last decade, there are four concepts and actions that the Army and unit-level command teams must implement.
Four Essentials for Empowering a Mission Command Climate
First, the Army and units must inculcate mission command as a vital part of Army culture and unit climates, not a privilege only afforded to commanders and senior leaders. Second, the Army needs to reduce the doctrinal specificity and conditions of mission command’s applicability. Put simply, leaders should refrain from attempting to operationalize the concept. Next, field-grade commanders and their command sergeants major should facilitate unit-level leader professional development (LPD) sessions that utilize group discussion and relevant case studies while emphasizing critical thinking. Finally, leaders must understand and maximize the need for a cohesive relationship between the mission command elements of mutual trust and shared understanding. This essay explains these four essential concepts in detail.
Inculcate Mission Command as a Vital Part of Army Culture
As previously mentioned, auftragstaktik is the United States Army’s blueprint for mission command; however, in Germany, auftragstaktik is more of a “cultural philosophy” (Vandergriff, n.d., p. 2). Vandergriff (n.d.) postulates that it is neither a “command and control doctrine” nor a “ticket to a free for all” (p. 2). The Army must weave this principle into the very fabric of our profession of arms, from the training bays of basic combat training to the classrooms of the United States Army War College.
Incorporating a mission command template that demands adaptive, critical thinking within the limits of a senior commander’s intent first requires an understanding and acceptance of the operational force’s generational composition. Senior leaders in today’s Army are primarily baby boomers and Generation X, while many of their subordinates are millennials and a growing number of young Soldiers from Generation Z. Millennials intrinsically desire to be informed, involved, and independent thinkers (Chou, 2012). Encouraging young Soldiers to take ownership of problem sets by implementing their own solutions within certain limits grooms them to be leaders who understand the value of exercising disciplined initiative and accepting prudent risks within the commander’s intent.
Reduce Doctrinal Specificity
One of the primary factors that doomed the Army’s previous mission command philosophy was that it was too vague for leaders at all echelons to comprehend despite its prescriptive nature. Although many concepts in the doctrine were over-analyzed, there were varying interpretations of mission command that landed far from the doctrine’s original intent and yielded less than desirable outcomes in the field. Senior leaders still expected to retain a sizeable amount of command and control over subordinate elements, while subordinate leaders expressed zeal at the opportunity to exercise more autonomy and decentralized leadership under the umbrella of disciplined initiative (Koester, 2013, p. 2).
Mission command cannot be doctrinally standardized or measured in quantifiable objectives. Whether providing mission orders under the moniker of mission command or command and control, expecting subordinate leaders to execute those orders within the boundaries of a prescriptive manual often stifles adaptability and critical thinking. In a translation from famed Prussian general Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke’s Instructions for Large Unit Commanders, Vandergriff (n.d.) found:
In general, one does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary. . . . The higher the authority, the shorter and more general will the orders be. The next lower command adds what further precision appears necessary. . . . Each thereby retains freedom of action and decision within his authority. (p. 2)
ADP 6-0 took a step in this direction after choosing to rescind or no longer define doctrinal terms such as art of command, authority, prudent risk, and science of control (Department of the Army, 2019, p. ix). Characterizing each term in detail was never essential to the successful execution of mission command. Other unnecessary, defined terms that remain in Army doctrine include human endeavors, people, key tasks, end state, and varying degrees of initiative. Soldiers of all grades understand these terms without the need for additional clarification. It is more important that Soldiers readily identify situations that require decisiveness, initiative, and ingenuity.
Use LPDs to Encourage Critical Thinking
As it currently stands, noncommissioned officers adhere to 14 principles proclaimed as an enlisted leader’s responsibilities to mission command in its Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Guide, Training Circular 7-22.7 (Department of the Army, 2015). The NCO Guide leaves these responsibilities simplified in bullet format and subject to the interpretation of the reader. Furthermore, professional military education courses attended by career Army officers do not extensively cover the NCO Guide, so officers and enlisted service members alike are rarely in accord on the NCO’s role in mission command. In order to create a shared understanding between officers and the NCO Corps, unit leaders should facilitate LPDs on C2 and mission command rather than separate officer and NCO professional development sessions pertaining to the same subject.
Company and battalion command teams, platoon leaders and platoon sergeants, and all other staff officers and NCOs could benefit greatly from jointly dissecting the successes and failures of historic battles such as the Battle of the Potomac, the Battle of Waterloo, and contemporary engagements such as 2008’s Battle of Wanat. These unit-level practical exercises provide context to the shared responsibilities of mission command while encouraging critical thinking and improving unit cohesion.
Mutual Trust Enables Shared Understanding
Of the seven elements of mission command, the relationship between mutual trust and shared understanding is unparalleled. Commanders and leaders have an inherent responsibility to ensure their subordinates are comfortable enough to voice concerns and questions about the commander’s intent in any forum. Former Combined Arms Center Command Sergeant Major, Dennis Eger, provided a prime example of the confusion that ensues absent the co-existence of mutual trust and shared understanding. Eger recounted a story involving his previous brigade commander during a deployment to Afghanistan. At the end of a mission brief, the commander verified with everyone in the room that they understood all of the mission details–senior and junior leaders alike. Everyone verbally acknowledged that they understood when asked, but immediately sought clarification once the commander exited the room. Even though the brigade commander deliberately asked everyone if they understood, he missed the opportunity to clarify his intent because he did not first establish a relationship that allowed his subordinates to voice concerns or confusion without fear of reprisal. Developing unfettered trust is essential to creating an environment where shared understanding can thrive, and it is arguably the most critical of the four aforementioned concepts. (Koester, 2013, p. 3)
As the Department of Defense shifts its national defense strategy to re-establish dominance against near-peer threats by synchronizing joint and coalition forces in full-spectrum operations, the Army is well served to update its doctrine into a universally shared language with sister services and allied partners (Department of Defense, 2018). However, that does not mean that as an institution the Army cannot improve its fighting position regarding the understanding and execution of the command and control warfighting function and mission command elements. In order to avoid the practical missteps that previously plagued the mission command philosophy, the Army should adopt a more holistic approach to its German root, auftragstaktik. This means reducing the philosophy’s doctrinal specificity and engraining it as a grassroots element of the total Army culture. It includes conducting officer and NCO attended LPDs that encourage critical thinking while harmonizing officer and enlisted aspects of mission command. Finally, commanders must embrace the linkage between shared understanding and mutual trust realizing that the former cannot exist without the latter. In doing so, command teams can be successful at empowering a mission command climate within their organizations.
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