Mission Command as Philosophy

A guest post by Michael Kiser

“Mission Command” as a principle is largely discussed within the framework of a tactical environment. This is a natural occurrence given the profession – as Army officers, particularly among maneuver officers, we naturally try to frame “mission command” as a set of tools for improving unit performance and the attainment of specified outcomes (i.e. mission accomplishment). Where previous articles highlighted tactical employment of mission command (here and here), this article discusses implementing the philosophy of mission command in an organization’s daily activities.

Aug. 21, 2014 – U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher

The full potential of mission command cannot be realized unless it is approached as a philosophy. By the time mission command occurs in a tactical environment, it is often too late to build cohesive teams based on trust and mutual understanding- especially if trust is to be earned based on demonstrated performance as the one author alludes to. Building teams and shared understanding must occur long before deployment and both reflect an organization’s culture.

Mission command as a philosophy should drive an organization’s culture, beginning critically with how it receives and integrates new leaders into its ranks. As the highest tactical level unit in the army, the battalion is a good focal point for examining how a philosophical approach to mission command sets the necessary preconditions for its application in tactical environments. Doing so also highlights the important role of the battalion commander has in using mission command principals to shape organizational norms and develop lieutenants.

Platoon leaders and their non-commissioned counterparts are amongst essential leaders in a battalion, but their formal education on how the organization operates in the larger picture is woefully incomplete. The respective branch basic course provides little understanding of how battalions function at home station or in combat. Yet under mission command, the Army expects these leaders to be able to understand how a battalion commander thinks and to take appropriate actions based on that knowledge, be it on the battlefield or when helping a Soldier with a hospitalized family member or one who was arrested. This paradox of expectations unmatched by the formal education highlights the need for a philosophical approach to mission command that focuses on two key elements: building trust and shared understanding.

Building trust and shared understanding within an organization starts with the reception and integration of new leaders. There needs to be a system, such as a new leader integration course, in place for teaching the key company grade leaders the battalion’s cultural norms and the associated behaviors expected with them. If, for example, the support platoon has half of the platoon prepping for an ammo draw at 0630 and the other half conducting PT, how does the battalion commander expect those two key leaders to divide their time? Does he expect them both in the motor pool supervising the ammo draw? Does he expect them both at PT if the right staff sergeant oversees the ammo mission? Does he expect one in the motor pool and one at PT – and if so, is there a clear preference on who should be where? These questions might seem trivial, but they provide insight into how the battalion commander views leadership and expects day to day business to occur and the answers also help shape day to day operations in a tactical environment.

A potential way to achieve this early trust and understanding is for the battalion commander to clearly set up enduring priorities that are communicated up front and reinforced throughout his tenure. One former squadron commander had three simple priorities: readiness, leader development, and comprehensive soldier and family fitness and required that all platoon, troop, and squadron events be demonstrably linked to furthering one of them. This helped platoon leaders and troop commanders understand the SCO’s direction for the organization and reinforced his priorities on a routine basis. It also helped build trust because the SCO could quickly gauge his key leader’s understanding of those priorities by how they were incorporated into routine events.

Another potential system is a battalion level integration course for new leaders. This could be simple, such as having new arrivals read a particular book on leadership the battalion commander values and then engaging in a discussion about it. This provides an upfront introduction to how the battalion commander thinks and intends to operate and provides valuable face time for platoon leaders to ask the battalion commander questions and get to know him or her. Such systems could also be more complex, involving potentially a structured course that reviews unit priorities, culture, and SOPs in considerable detail.

This type of integration course needs to be supplemented by routine Officer Professional Development (OPD) Sessions led by the battalion commander. The core of the OPD program should be linked back to the battalion commander’s enduring priorities. The commander should be repeatedly engaging lieutenants on subjects important to them because it reinforces the importance of those priorities while simultaneously assessing how well each platoon leader understands and implements them. Routine engagement with platoon leaders provides the ability for tactical mission command by building mutual trust and shared understanding over time.

The big advantage of treating mission command as a philosophy, rather than simply a tool, is that it forces the development of organizational systems that deliberately create cultures that emphasize the commander’s desired behaviors from leaders. It helps create trust early one by having leaders demonstrate they understand how the battalion commander wants to function and facilitates shared understanding by explicitly stating and reinforcing cultural norms. This also prevents a culture in which unspoken norms exist. A piece on a senior rater’s unspoken norms received critical feedback mostly because some of the norms stated were perceived as petty, outdated, or unsuitable for assessing lieutenants. If a battalion commander considers something important enough to consider in his assessment of junior leader, they should clearly communicate it to them. If norms remain unspoken, then associated breaches of those norms go uncorrected and can lead to a unit culture different from what the battalion commander envisions.

By thinking of mission command as a philosophy that drives organizational norms, it gives battalion commanders a better ability to envision and implement unit cultures and field grades a more nuanced ability to design systems that support it. It is necessary to think of mission command holistically and beyond just another tool for doing business.

CPT (P) Mike Kiser is an armor officer, a graduate of Gettysburg College and holds a Master Degree in History from Boston College. He is currently serving as a History Instructor at the United States Military Academy.