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The power of Mission Command


“CONTACT, WAIT, OUT”.


For any service personnel who has ever served on operations, these three words can send a shiver down your spine. They signify that troops are in a contact scenario that could entail the; being shot at, doing the shooting, or a blast has gone off that may signify a IED - Improvised Explosive Device (booby trap) or mine. When the call comes over the radio, it informs everybody who may be on that specific frequency, that they need to clear the airwaves and await further instruction. Regardless of the seniority of those listening in, if it is a junior corporal or private who is manning the radio and made the call, they are the master of the airways and everyone is at their beck and call.


Serving as part of a Battle Group Headquarters, whenever a call of this nature came through - once the initial spike of fear had subsided – I would start working through the relevant information I had amassed to this point, so I could respond if called upon. While the troops in contact on the ground dealt with the immediate threat, as the attached engineer I would be mentally checking off the combat engineer equipment the team had with them on the ground; where the closest resupply point would be; who was on the ground; what type of terrain they were in; whether they had the right equipment for the mission in hand. What I would not be doing, was worrying about how to micromanage my team leader or concern myself with exactly what they were doing. I had full trust that they knew what the parameters of their mission were, who they needed to work with on the ground and how they would achieve mission success.


This approach is known within the military as ‘mission command’ and for the history nuts amongst you, originates from the German concept Auftragstaktik, which denotes decentralized leadership. The principles are imparted to all levels of military leadership throughout their careers (with some taking more note than others) and provide the foundations for effective command and control both in barracks and on the battlefield.


In the office environment, the principles can be just as effective if delivered and supported by effective leaders. Whilst it is difficult to try and convey years of learned experience and decades of refined behaviour in under 900 words, I can try to provide a quick summary to support your own personal and professional growth.


Mission Command comprises one guiding principle and five further principles. The guiding principle of Mission Command is the absolute responsibility to act to achieve the superior commander’s intent. (How often have you given or received absolute responsibility to achieve your target/objective? Imagine what you could achieve if you were...) The other five are:


  1. Unity of effort – everyone working together to achieve the end objective, regardless of who receives the glory

  2. Freedom of action – within specified and implied constraints, staff act as they see fit to achieve their leader’s intent

  3. Trust – a pre-requisite of command at all levels, it improves the speed of decision making and should be the default for leaders to trust their superiors and subordinates

  4. Mutual understanding – with experience leaders gain understanding of their teams fears and issues so they can better support them, and if correctly cultivated provides teams with an understanding of their leaders

  5. Timely and effective decision-making – a challenge in the digital world where information is everywhere, yet leaders must often make decisions based on an imperfect and incomplete understanding. Developing an intuitive understanding of when to decide is as integral a component of the art of command as knowing from where to command

In is important to note that there are also three functions of command must be in harmony for it to operate successfully:


  • Leaders must ensure that the team understand the context (of the goal) and their superiors’ intent

  • Leaders at all levels must use good judgement and initiative to achieve intent and develop a mind-set focused on identifying indirect solutions to problems

  • Leaders who make sound decisions without recourse to their higher headquarters (executives or boards) and who are comfortable with freedom of action rather than tight control

None of these are easy though and each rely on all levels of an organisation to be on the same page for it to be truly effective.


Reflecting on the experiences gained over years of combat experience coupled with corporate my learnings, it is easy to see how a little more delegation of responsibility to teams could lead to outstanding results. To achieve this though, business leaders must be prepared to accept that things will not necessarily turnout how they have planned in their own minds, and that mistakes could be made along the way. Whilst they may risk businesses 'precious resources' - time, money, brand - to achieve this, arguable we were trusted with our teams lives when rolling out this approach. So it must have at least an element of effectiveness to have been used again and again over generations of military evolution.


There are no definitely organisations who have already adopted this style of command, yet for business culture to truly walk down this path, it will require multiple businesses to be prepared to step forward and take the plunge. To forge that kind of approach within teams is a truly remarkable skill that can allow organisations to dominate their industry sectors given half a chance however, it is up to us as leaders to create and nurture an environment that allows effective mission command.


If you believe your business has taken the plunge, please let me know your takeaways on both the roll-out process and end result, what has or hasn't worked. If you want to develop this style of leadership in your organisation - yet don't know how or where to start - please reach out and I will be happy to start and support you on your journey.

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