In The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of soldiers: “Theirs not to reason why; Theirs but to do and die.” More than 150 years later, his characterization helps explain why the US military has had so much trouble with the ongoing shift from traditional, rigid military leadership to “mission command”—a change struggling to progress.
American doctrine defines mission command as a concept that “enables military operations through decentralized execution based on mission-type orders.” The definition goes on to explain that mission command is about delegating decisions to subordinates wherever possible, minimizing detailed control, and empowering lower-level initiative.
The US military formally adopted mission command in its doctrine in 2003, in recognition of the future speed and complexity of war in contested environments—a prediction echoed in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Mission command has roots in the German concept of “auftragstaktik” that began in the late 1800s and became dominant in World War II.
It is far more than a simple change in terminology—it’s a cultural shift. To understand why progress has been slow, consider how antithetical empowered, decentralized action is to what Lord Tennyson famously wrote about.
The German military made this transition to survive an organizational crisis. The US military has no such catalyst—it has not won a war in thirty years, but it hasn’t truly lost one either. To successfully adopt mission command, the services should learn from organizations that have created cultures of empowered, decentralized leadership. Specifically, they should be looking at the world’s leading technology companies. If the military truly wants to become agile and decentralized, it’s time that leaders at all levels begin looking outward for inspiration and examples of better culture.
Deeds Not Words
During my time on active duty, leaders would often pay lip service to the new term. Upon deeper inspection, observers would find a common perspective among junior leaders that “mission command” was effectively a way for mid-grade and senior leaders (who, this perspective holds, were traditionally micromanagers) to abdicate responsibility for failure or to hide their own lack of expertise. At a minimum, the term “mission command” seems to have devolved into a hollow buzzword. Similar sentiments can be found in Army survey data and readily seen in the Defense Department’s official after-action review from last year’s fatal operation in Niger (which blames the Special Forces team leader and leaves more senior officers without scrutiny despite their own failures).
Senior military leaders clearly did not intend for the doctrinal change to lead to this sort of scapegoating, but this is what results from only changing the lexicon of command without addressing the artifacts of organizational culture.
Despite the progress of the last fifty years, American military culture is still known for a harsh conformity to norms and subordination of newer members, as famously portrayed in the film Full Metal Jacket. Unsurprisingly, researchers have shown senior military leaders to be less open to new ideas than the general population. Thus, the only leaders who are in a position to lead reform in the military are the ones who are least interested in change and likely know the least about other models and organizations.
For as long as I can remember, service members and senior leaders have dismissed learning from nontraditional sources—civilian institutions, for example, or academic fields that aren’t directly and intuitively linked to the military’s chief business of making war—because of arguments about the military’s unique mission and responsibility. One can see evidence of this in the chief of staff of the Army’s professional reading list, which is largely absent works that are not specifically focused on war, strategy, and the global operating environment. It is also heavy in history, and remarkably low in diversity (it includes just a single woman and almost no minorities while giving multiple male authors three titles on the list). It’s hard to move forward when you’re only looking backwards. Instead of seeking inspiration from all directions, it seems that the services are again preparing to fight the previous war.
The world’s leading technology companies are known for their cultures and values which drive their performance. Google recently made headlines when their employees determined that the company’s contracts with the US military conflicted with their culture. To varying degrees, we can also learn from the cultures at Apple, Netflix, and even Facebook. And these cultures are, with remarkably few exceptions, the product of clearly and carefully defined lists of tenets that companies’ leaders believe should underpin everything they do.
To say that these lists of tenets do in fact drive culture is not an exaggeration. Leadership principles are the bedrock of culture—they are the point of reference for leaders in times of crisis or uncertainty. That’s why we make them easy to remember. At the highest level, mission command relies on tenets to empower lower units. When the father of auftragstaktik, Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, wrote “the higher the authority, the shorter and more general [orders must be]” he was describing tenets.
In the US military, however, neither the Army, Navy, Air Force, nor Marine Corps have a list of values that provide clarity. They have mantras that were developed by committee. They sound good, but don’t hold up to scrutiny. In the Army, for example, the values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage seem to establish the minimum bar for wearing the uniform rather than an aspirational charge. In practice, failing to meet one of these values is cause for reprimand (or worse) rather than an opportunity to develop as a leader. Moreover, they are both so obvious and without reference to “trust” as to make them only marginally useful in the face of decentralized battle. What should a soldier do when a superior’s lawful order is overcome by events on the ground? Is it better to maintain the status quo or try something new and risk failing? The answers are unclear.
Tenets for Tenets
Mission command is rooted in mission-type orders—the written directives that specify tasks, purposes, and priorities. However, the military’s reliance on mission statements will perpetually conflict with its attempts to empower subordinate leaders unless it is made clear that leadership starts at the bottom. Lower-level units have a better understanding of the situation; missions change because the enemy gets a vote; and there are too many unforeseeable contingencies for higher echelons to address in plans.
Unlike orders, tenets are enduring and articulate the organization’s most deeply held assumptions. Tenets provide guidance through ambiguity by building consensus and providing focus. They apply to the present situation while remaining durable and strategic. Amazon’s first leadership principle is “Customer Obsessed” and that drives everything that Amazon does. During my fifteen years in uniform, I frankly never saw anything that resembled this level of focus on the enemy. In fact, I remember confused discussions about what missions my former units needed to be training for. Even with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan scheduled, mid-grade and senior leaders demanded units conduct training focused on near-peer threats like Russia and China. (Some would argue that this was because that’s what they had learned as junior officers—another consequence of career tenure).
Tenets for Mission Command
One thing I’ve learned at Amazon is that organizational culture is organic and cannot simply be imported. The purpose of this essay is not to convince the services to adopt Amazon’s (or any other company’s) leadership principles. Rather, if the services truly want mission command, they should create tenets that align more closely with that style of leadership and rigorously analyze other cultural norms for alignment (and not the other way around).
To get them started, I’m proposing the following draft tenets with a caveat that we use at Amazon: “unless you know better ones.” This caveat is important for 2 reasons: people and organizations need to admit a degree of uncertainty and because the world changes and what was once true may not be now.
- Enemy obsessed. Our enemies are smart, innovative, and resourceful. They will adapt and we must, too. Our superiority depends on today and tomorrow only, not past victories.
- Protect civilians. We selflessly volunteer to take up arms and to place ourselves in harm’s way. We must always act to protect civilians and put ourselves at risk first.
- Earn trust. Leaders build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
- Think critically. Leaders prioritize the long term and make decisions that can scale. Leaders ask why. Leaders are distrustful of data and look out for unintended consequences.
- Sua Sponte. Exercise disciplined initiative. Have a bias for action. Be bold. Accept prudent risk. Act decisively.
- Fix problems once. Leaders address root causes, not symptoms. After-action reviews identify successes and failures; leaders take action to codify them. Do not pass a problem forward.
- Goal oriented. Create shared understanding of priorities. Use commander’s intent to influence and empower lower-level leaders.
- Technology is a force multiplier. We win because we operate faster and more precisely.
- People are our decisive advantage. Recruit, develop, promote, and retain the best. Each person’s talent is unique and not interchangeable. Intellect, curiosity, and passion cannot be easily replaced.
- Leaders are accountable for their actions, their teams, and their inaction. Obeying orders or procedures does not excuse failure and leaders are expected to voice dissent.
- Improve constantly. Do not accept the status quo as good enough. Measure, experiment, refine, and iterate. Small, calculated failures lead to large successes.
Culture change is never easy. Without a crisis, it is not likely to be fast either, but the services cannot afford to be lackadaisical. As former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki said: “If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” The last fifteen years have shown how an organization will adjust (with unintended consequences) to an incomplete change effort. In redefining their services’ values and cultures, senior military leaders must learn from other organizations that are innovative and decentralized at scale. These proposed tenets are just a starting point for thinking about how military leaders can articulate values that provide the clarity and guidance that is needed in future combat.
Author’s note: While writing this piece, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spoke at the Air Force Association’s annual conference on September 19, and readers can watch the full interview here.
Image credit: Robert Scoble
I agree with much of what the author is saying here, but I take strong issue with one of his criticisms of the Chief of Staff’s reading list and how it is “…remarkably low in diversity (it includes just a single woman and almost no minorities while giving multiple male authors three titles on the list). It’s hard to move forward when you’re only looking backwards.”
That’s not to say there are not more female and/or minority authors worth reading (not as many as white men, in the English language, but a few come readily to mind which I might have considered), but the primary factor for inclusion on a professional reading list should be the merit of what is written within it – not the diversity of whomever wrote it. Ideas have no gender or color, but far too many lives have been lost by pushing a flawed concept.
As a Black male I have experiences that may bring value to any analysis or discussion. Warfare, leadership, logistics, and mission command may benefit from other views.
I wasn’t suggesting that minorities don’t have anything worth contributing. There are a great number of sources out there worth reading that were written by people of every stripe.
My issue was with judging the diversity of a reading list based on the physical traits of the authors, rather than the content of their writings (though I’m not sure how much of a role diversity of thought should play on a professional reading list, vice a unity of focus – my own, personal list would contain some counter works to encourage the audience to judge for themselves… others wish to push a specific philosophy).
Don't judge a book by its cover (and the author's name is usually on the cover).
I enjoyed reading your essay and think you have many salient points. I completely agree that the services can learn from technology companies but I do disagree that all the services are failing at mission command.
At risk of being parochial after 30 years of both active and reserve duty in the USN I think I can safely state that the USN does subscribe to the principles of mission command. However, it can be debated how well it employs those principles on a day to day basis over the past decades. Over my career spanning the late 80s to the late teens, I have seen it wax and wane and wax again. As a newly commissioned ensign in the USN during the latter part of the Cold War the principles of mission command were both taught and practiced, at least by the leadership of my squadron, air wing, and carrier battle group. As a junior officer, I doubt I can remember that any of my leadership ever stated the words “mission command” in a brief. However, looking back after taking professional military education classes it was very clear to me that the USN practiced mission command during my junior officer years. During the Cold War, both technology and the potential conflict with a peer competitor at sea required the USN to be able to fight using mission command principles. Post-cold war and following the lessons learned in the first Gulf War the USN realized to effectively have a role in future joint conflicts high bandwidth data pipes to the fleet would be needed. In my opinion, bringing high bandwidth data to the fleet brought both positive and negatives to the USN. Positives ranged from being able to get satellite imagery nearly instantly to the fleet instead of waiting for an aircraft to bring it from shore allowing the USN to tighten its OODA loop, to sailors being able to email family and friends instead of waiting weeks for a letter from home improving morale. The negative, besides the OPSEC nightmare of allowing sailors to email family and friends, is what I once heard a strike group commander call a “5000 nautical mile screwdriver.” The ability for a commander ashore or a fleet commander to nearly instantly see what was happening 5000 nautical miles away unfortunately could and did result in senior commanders getting on the satcom and effectively negating hundreds of years of mission command practice that arguably could be traced back to Nelson’s “England expects that every man will do his duty” to Admiral Stark’s order immediately after Pearl Harbor to "Execute unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan." During the 90s and mid-00s it was common talk in the wardrooms I was in to complain of that “5000 nautical mile screwdriver.” From the late 00s to mid teens while I was assigned to Pacific Fleet under Admirals Williard, Walsh, Haney, Harris and Swift mission command was preached continually from senior leadership. I cannot verify if mission command was practiced down to individual units in 3rd and 7th Fleet but I can know it was a high priority of all the aforementioned Admirals and common in any commanders intent messages that Pacific Fleet units at all levels would be able to fight and win in both in high and low communication environments.
For mission command to be successfully implemented no matter in any service or business I believe subordinate commanders/managers need to believe that their superiors will “have their back” no matter whether a subordinate is wildly successful in a mission or fails in a mission as long as the subordinate has held to commanders intent, or in the case of your essay the tenets. Where I think the services fail in implementing mission command is the lack of tolerance for failure. Whereas failure tends to be embraced by Silicon Valley and other disruptive innovation centers the appetite for failure in the military seems to have been lost. In today’s military, I cannot imagine a young naval officer running a ship aground being court martial and convicted(!) and then rising to flag rank as Admiral Nimitz was able to do in his career. Unfortunately, in high visibility cases, scapegoats are searched for instead a senior commander taking responsibility for the failure of a subordinate in their chain of command. In the start-ups I have been in as founder I have gone to great lengths to use mission command principle with my employees. It empowers them and allows them to grow. Mistakes are analyzed and fixes implemented. You list these as part of your tenets and they are practices I learned in the USN over and over from the time I was an Ensign to the time I retired as a Captain.
Again, great article and the bottom line is one really can’t overemphasize the benefits of a mission command culture.
Having recently read “Turn the Ship Around” by L. David Marquet, it seems that your situation and experience with the Navy’s grasp of mission command is either unique to your career, your career field, or viewed through the rose-colored glasses of time, but is not universal in the US Navy.
That’s not to insult the US Navy, but allowing for disciplined initiative to seize opportunities is different from allowing for autonomy due to the inability to direct. You alluded to this in your “5000 mile screwdriver” analogy. When given the tools, leaders began directing.
In 24 (and counting) years in the Army, I continue to see problems with the application of the mission command concept.
As a fellow veteran and Amazonian who works on the operations side, I've been humbled and surprised by the volume of high-functioning leaders that exist in the company. However, there is a distinct difference, at least at the tactical level, between "increasing wealth for shareholders" and achieving military objectives. Risks taken at an Amazon Fulfillment center may result in a loss of several hundred hours of productivity or customer deliveries showing up late whereas risks taken in the military may result in pink sand or a MH-47 burning in with 30 SEALs on board. The context in which these cultures exist is Apples to oranges.
Strategically, senior military leaders have absolutely made miscalculations that have dramatically affected my life, and will likely negatively impact our country for generations to come. For many instances, I think I can say the same thing for the FANG companies.
Not try'n to troll ya bro, but you're trying too hard to overlay Lockean principles over an organization that is ultimately Hobbesian at its core.
Pie in the sky school room hogwash. Bottom line O4 thru O6 want to wear stars and they’ll do what it takes to get good evals. Take credit for the good & deflect the bad. General officers have their stars & pontificate & recycle leadership ideas that have been around sense mans first army. Does anyone think this is new.? New insight into improving mission outcome by relinquishing control? Come on. Business has advantage military doesn’t have. Instant reward for success. $$$$ It’s that simple.
The country that is focused on achieving social advancements predicated on race or minority status over strategic and tactical capacity, is the country that will soon be conquered. The United States military forgets its purpose. It is not to advance minority concerns. It is to win wars – as a meritocratic organization. The best man for the job should be the one selected. The best books should be read. The best lessons should be learned. Articles like this are why the Communist Chinese will defeat the Americans in minutes within about 10 years. We are a laughing stock because our military is focused on silly diversity objectives and not winning wars.
Agree, Padraig Martin. We are wasting an inordinate amount of time on dealing with "training" our troops about extremism in the ranks (mandated by the D.C. Marxists in charge), transgender hormone treatment appointments, coercively vaxxing many unwilling participants and being generally unserious about everything combat-related.