Mission Command. Start with Why.

A guest post by Major Kyle Trottier

A common explanation of mission command is that it is telling people what to do, instead of how to achieve the end state. There is normally a desire not to use detailed command and specify precisely how the mission will be executed as some associate this with the negative term, “micromanagement.” However, the successful execution of mission command demands leaders to start with why, the purpose of the action. Simon Sinek explains in his 2011 book, “Start With Why” that the failure to express why will lead to an increase in stress and disorder within an organization. Applying some of the principles found in his book can increase our understanding of mission command, our role in supporting the commander and subordinates, and how to yield more successful organizations.

April 2, 2015 – Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicolas Morales

Sinek proposes people don’t buy ‘what’ you do, they buy ‘why’ you do it. He calls this speaking from the inside out; by first explaining their purpose, then how they work towards that goal, and finally what tangible things demonstrate their commitment to their purpose. He uses examples like Apple and Southwest Airlines to demonstrate how companies that communicate in the Why, How, What sequence have been industry leaders for prolonged periods while those who use the reverse order are typified by short-term gains, but long-term failures.

Sinek explains how this mode of communication is linked to our biology. Our neocortex is the part of the brain that executes rational thought. Here the brain takes the measurable data (what) and computes it to determine definable pros and cons. The limbic brain, on the other hand, is correlated to those “gut feelings” that you can’t rationally explain but just feel right. By communicating “from the inside out” and expressing purpose first you appeal to one’s heart or their gut feelings, then by presenting measurable or quantifiable data you plea to the person’s mind. Thus, the classic phrase “win their hearts and minds” is scientifically justified, once you triumph over a person’s heart, then they can believe the data. But, if you never appeal to the why, no amount of data will ever be enough to convince people.

As leaders we must know our why so that we are able to effectively communicate to peers, subordinates, and superiors about how we are working to achieve our purpose and measure what we are doing. ADRP 1-0, The Army defines our why:

The Army gives the United States landpower. Landpower is the ability—by threat,
force, or occupation—to gain, sustain, and exploit control over land, resources, and
people. Landpower includes the ability to—

– Impose the Nation’s will on an enemy, by force if necessary.
– Engage to influence, shape, prevent, and deter in any operational environment.
– Establish and maintain a stable environment that sets the conditions for political and economic development.
– Address the consequences of catastrophic events—both natural and man-made—to restore infrastructure and reestablish basic civil services.
– Secure and support bases from which joint forces can influence and dominate the air, land, and maritime domains of an operational environment.

How the Army delivers landpower is through building readiness and the conduct of unified land operations (ULO) is what we do to demonstrate our purpose. ULO is guided by Mission Command which is where we, as leaders, earn our keep.

Army leaders assist their commander to ensure he/she is able to clearly understand, visualize, and describe the why. This discourse manifests itself in the form of a clear commander’s intent. A clear commander’s intent enables the unit to create shared understanding because they all understand their why. By clearly and consistently communicating from the inside out, the organization builds cohesive teams through mutual trust. Finally, the use of mission orders enables subordinates to exercise disciplined Initiative and commanders to accept prudent risk


Why? To provide combatant commanders landpower able to prevent, shape, and win across the range of military operations.

How (Readiness): Train, Man, Equip

What (ULO): Train – physical, individual, collective training. Man – build cohesive teams based on mutual trust. Equip – field and maintain equipment.

Communicating across formations from the inside out increases clarity and understanding and supports the principles of mission command. In this example, the purpose is to provide combatant commanders land power to prevent, shape, and win across the range of military operations. How the unit does this is through building readiness, CSA Milley’s number one priority. Readiness is achieved through training, manning and equipping formations. Each one of these areas of focus entails a plethora of tasks that are what a unit does to demonstrate its purpose. For the everyday task of conducting PT, a typical way of communicating would be to say, “today we are going to conduct PT, we will do 100 push-ups, 100 sit up, and run eight 400m sprints.” The same task, but starting with why might sound like this; “our job is to impose our nation’s will upon our enemies in combat. We will increase our individual readiness so we are capable of conducting the grueling tasks required to win in combat. To prepare ourselves to conduct these operations we will execute 100 push-ups, 100 sit ups, and eight 400m sprints.” The second version immediately provides clarity which builds cohesive teams and shared understanding.

As leaders, we communicate with, and on behalf of, our commander daily. Our use of mission orders and ability to provide a clear commanders intent will directly impact mission success. Our purpose is to provide land power so that our Nation has the ability to impose our will upon our enemies. By starting with why, Army leaders provide clarity. What they do validates their purpose consistently. This is leadership through inspiration, it is authentic, and people will buy into the values and beliefs espoused. When leaders do not start with why the use of fear and manipulation will increase as methods to overcome the lack clarity provided by the organization. When Soldiers believe in their purpose, when leaders are authentic, the most difficult missions become possible so start with why.

Major Kyle Trottier is an armor officer, a graduate from Texas Christian University and holds a master’s degree in Organizational and Business Security Management from Webster University and a Masters in Military Art and Science (Theater Operations) from the School of Advance Military Studies (SAMS). MAJ Trottier is currently serving as the 3ID FUOPS Chief.

Check out more on mission command here

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2 thoughts on “Mission Command. Start with Why.

  1. Great article showing why starting with WHY will foster mutual trust and understanding to those that you command / lead.
    I think this in collaboration with right to left thinking ( not left to right ) allows those that your gaining buy in to visualize the why; understanding the higher purpose … all with an aim to creating the positive mind set.

  2. Great article. Two things — Sinek’s TED Talk (here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPYeCltXpxw) is screened in week 2 of the Knowledge Management Qualification Course at the MCCOE, within the context of a block on change management; new KMOs selling KM to their CoS. Secondly, the primacy of “why” over “what” resonates with modern advertising: selling the idea of a lifestyle/sensation associated with the product, vice the merits of the product itself (here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/firas-kittaneh/use-content-marketing-to-_b_6686278.html). We tend to underestimate the power of vision, and therefore neglect to fully exploit its power when engaged in organizational change management.

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