Understanding Mission Command

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Mission command is a philosophy for command and a system for conducting operations that is widely understood within the Australian Army to be fundamental to the way we operate. 

However, I’ve found that Army’s junior leaders, myself included, typically don’t have a sophisticated understanding of it. 

Mission command is taught widely, but it is unusual to find someone who has a more nuanced understanding that goes beyond the oft-repeated mantra: ‘the commander says what is to be achieved, but the subordinate decides how to achieve it’. Definitions also tend to use the word ‘trust’ liberally. 

That’s a good starting point, but its commonly said that mission command is only well understood and implemented in the special forces while the conventional forces just don’t get it.

For Army’s doctrinal answer, find LWD 0-0 Command, Leadership and Management on the DPN. But for complementary working definitions, Grounded Curiosity used our 10in10 series to ask the interviewees to explain mission command for junior leaders. The answers are collated here. 

Major General Anthony Rawlins, the Deputy Chief of ArmyMission command says that everyone is an expert at some point in time, so you need to understand that when you are the expert you will be empowered to make decisions in that area of expertise. 

To build upon this further: irrespective of where you sit in our organisation, you are the local, situational, contextual expert at some point in time. We value that competitive and qualitative edge you give the Australian Army in that time or spatial location. We will give you the effect we want you to achieve, the resources you need to achieve that effect, describe to you the parameters within which you can operate, and from then on, it’s ‘your bag’. 

Mission command is what allows our Army to be much more adaptive, agile and versatile in a situation. 

Army in Motion tells us not to just do that on operations, but in the enterprise environment also. You are not just a ‘cog in the machine’ limited by hierarchy in the barracks environment. The Chief of Army is telling us to ‘Simplify the Army’; we must take our complex organisation and simplify the way that we empower people to make decisions and delegate responsibility down to the local, situational, contextual expert. At every level, every person is a critical player in some component of the broader enterprise. In order for them to be successful, we need to make it simpler for them and we need to empower their decision making. 

There is nothing more important than mission command, and nothing more applicable at every level. 

Warrant Officer Grant McFarlane, the Regimental Sergeant Major- ArmyAccountability, responsibility and trust are key to mission command. The subordinate is given a direction or a task, a left-and-right of arc, and the resources to achieve that. They then back-brief the leader on how they are going to do the task, including any little adjustments to the direction or task made necessary by their analysis, and then the subordinate goes out and completes the task. 

The commander is still responsible and accountable at the end of the day so they will come and check on the subordinate and to earn their trust in doing so; the subordinate needs to understand that the commander is invested in the outcome in order establish trust. The idea that the subordinate should not be checked upon by the commander is incorrect. That is, “you told me to go and do something, so let me go and do it”. No doubt there are overzealous commanders in our organisation who micromanage, but part of mission command is earning trust and understanding who is accountable through checks and balances. Mission command really ‘clicked’ for me as a Warrant Officer Class Two. 

Colonel James Davis: Mission command has become a ‘thing’ when it never was a thing. Build strong teams, share information as if your life depends on it, issue the amount of direction that the situation demands, and focus on principles, not rules. 

Colonel Sean ParkesMission command is the empowerment of leaders and followers to execute intent-based planning and is underpinned by trust, disciplined initiative and risk management. Subordinates are given a clear left-and-right of arc and, after considering mission intent and resources, they undertake a deliberate back-brief process to ensure alignment. 

You also get profound effects from people and teams when information is democratised and a ‘contest of ideas’ is fostered as part of the mission command process. 

Mission command in Army is not always well understood or practiced; perhaps a little more on operations than in the barracks environment. Notably, a true mission command climate generates a high-performance climate.

Colonel James Kidd: In my view there are two parts to mission command: communicating intent and understanding intent. Understanding intent is a deliberate effort; we have to be invested in it. You don’t just ‘read it and crack on’; you do have to regularly circle back and confirm your understanding of intent. It’s something that we all have to do. 

Likewise, communicating intent requires you to be deliberate and precise; you have to constantly adapt the way you communicate intent. The way a Platoon Commander communicates their intent to their call sign is very different to the way the Chief of Army communicates his intent, and that’s true for every position in between. A leader has to be constantly adapting, maybe even innovating, the way they communicate intent based on their audience. It requires ongoing reflection and investment and should be treated as an opportunity for self-improvement. 

Lieutenant Colonel Robin SmithCulturally, we love the idea of mission command, but we’re not great at executing it. This is because in the barracks our system of control is rigid, highly regulated, and there is no room for interpretation. Everything has to be accounted for; we have to avoid risk and we have to ensure no one is at risk. This is in contrast to when we are on operations where we seek innovative solutions, agility and celebrate the ‘maverick’ approach.

I was a Commanding Officer (CO) for just over two years, and I found that if I tried to be too directive- I admit I was a terrible delegator- I got worse results than when I gave my subordinates more freedom. This actually messed with my head for the first three months as CO! [laughs] I knew what I wanted to achieve, I knew how to achieve it, and so I really struggled with saying “this is what I want you to achieve” instead of “this is what I want you to do”. That’s a very difficult thing for commanders at any rank. I found my subordinates surprised me. They came up with ways to achieve my intent that I couldn’t have imagined because of my bias, my position, lack of time, etc. The more I empowered my subordinates, the more I was empowered by the results I was getting. 

We should have confidence in our subordinates, and sometimes the most junior person will have the best perspective. Therefore, you should trust the person who knows best. For example, if the Corporal who runs the armoury is the best person to brief the Brigade Commander on the security of the armoury, then that Corporal should brief the Brigade Commander. Not tell the Sergeant, to tell the Warrant Officer, to tell the Captain, to tell the CO who ultimately will get it wrong in the brief to the Brigade Commander.

Trust and confidence are key and work both ways. If you trust your subordinates, they trust you back. When the results are good and you give them praise, they are emboldened. This is why mission command is potentially a very powerful tool. I now say, “delegate to the point of discomfort… and then just beyond”. You have to be willing to take a bit of risk, which is difficult in a professional military where we’re worried about our careers. Yes, it might go wrong; but the results are amazing when it goes right. And if you’re that worried about your career, you probably shouldn’t be in a command position, because ultimately our job is all about risk (particularly on operations). 

Lieutenant Colonel Jasmin DiabAs the commander, I give my intent and I give what we need to achieve, but I also give resources and ensure we have the right number of people for my subordinates to go off and do the task. I keep touching base to ensure the subordinate is comfortable with the task and understands my intent, but otherwise allow them to achieve my intent however they see fit (so long as it is safe). 

You can’t have mission command without knowing your people, but that’s just a key part of leadership. You might have two subordinates at the exact same rank, but one might be ready to step up and take on more challenging tasks while another might still be trying to find their feet and so requires tasks that build their confidence. If you know your people, you will be able to task them appropriately. The Australian Army often gives people bad feedback; where they’ve failed to achieve what was desired. We also need to tell subordinates when they’ve exactly achieved the intent and likely done it in a way the commander never could have dreamed. The more experienced the commander is, the more biased they are towards achieving tasks in the same way they have always done. 

Lieutenant Colonel Scott HolmesMission Command is a philosophy, not a product. In its simplest form, it is the ability for multiple levels of teams to adapt to a dynamic environment with low latency. That’s the important part. 

My view is formed from looking at why the Germans, or Prussians, developed it in the first place. The Prussians found that the scale of war in the Napoleonic Era increased to the point that command could no longer be centralised. A commander couldn’t observe the entire battlefield and so couldn’t give signals to control Regiments (and Regiments could no longer see all of their personnel either). Without the communication system to get orders to dispersed commanders at a speed that helped them adapt or change with the situation as it unfolds, the Prussians decided to do things differently. The focus became: “the total outcome we’re trying to achieve is X, right now, the plan is for you to do Y. If the parameters change, make sure we can still achieve X. Y is not important”. And to me that’s it, mission command at its simplest.

I’d say to my Subbies [Subalterns]: “understand that the mission (‘X’) that we have as an organisation hasn’t changed until I tell you differently, and I’ll find the communication mechanism to let you know if this occurs. Everything else we do is only a method to getting to ‘X’; Make sure your ‘Y’ contributes to the ‘X’.” My final point would be that the plan still remains important, not because it’s the executable but because it provides the shared context that multiple teams have from planning that allows them to cooperate effectively.

Major Adam HepworthThere’s two ways to know if you’re practicing mission command. The first is paraphrased from the British Army Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Alexander Carleton-Smith: “keep delegating until you feel uncomfortable… and then delegate a little bit more”. The people working for you are competent professionals so you can keep pushing tasks down until the right person is doing the work. The commander cannot be the scout, the rifleman and the gunner, but there are people who are good at those jobs that you can put to work. This buys you time to think; which is precisely the commander’s job. The second is paraphrased from my current boss Lieutenant Colonel Mark Tutton: “have a bias for action”. Let your subordinates operate freely within your intent; if they are empowered to do work then you and the organisation will enjoy better outcomes. 

It helps to know what is happening when you challenge the accepted. 10in10 is an interview series designed to share insight into future-leaning work across the Australian profession of arms. One interview will be released every day for 10 days. You can find previous interviews here.

About the Author: Samuel J. Cox is the editor of Grounded Curiosity. You can follow him on Twitter via the handle @samuel_j_cox.