Creating agile leaders

All forms of mission-oriented leadership, from maneuver warfare to the Toyota Production System, share a common foundation: Fire up the creativity and initiative of all members of the organization and harmonize their efforts to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Such an orientation allows them to create and exploit fleeting opportunities before their opponents can understand what is going on.

As Don Vandergriff quotes one of the principal architects of the German blitzkrieg:

The principle thing now is to increase the responsibilities of the individual man, particularly his independence of action, and thereby to increase the efficiency of the entire army. . . .The limitations imposed by exterior circumstances cause us to give the mind more freedom of activity, with the profitable result of increasing the ability of the individual.

HANS VON SEECKT, Commander of the German Army, 1920 -1926

This approach is often called Auftragstaktik, and it is hard to find any military organization that doesn’t claim to be using it.

However, as Don copiously illustrates in his new book, Adopting Mission Command*, the institutions that control how the US Army trains its soldiers remain firmly rooted in a top-down command mentality.

This book, however, and quite refreshingly, does not focus on problems but on their solution. Perhaps most important, it draws its solutions not just from long-vanished foes, such as the Wehrmacht, or from academic research, but also describes the results of experiments conducted in contemporary US Army training programs.

In other words, we know this stuff works for American soldiers right now.

I know nothing about Army training nowadays**, so I’ll focus on other applications, particularly business. A lot of this isn’t going to apply directly. For one thing, few corporations will bear the costs of sending their junior managers and execs through multi-week, intensive programs as the Army does with their Army Reconnaissance Course, which Don calls “What Right Looks Like.”

If you read that chapter carefully, looking at why the course is structured the way it is, you will find nuggets that you can use for your own organization. For example:

The first thing that pops into the mind of the novice or someone conditioned by the old checklist evaluation system is, “How do you tangibly measure with these measures of effectiveness (MOEs)?” The answer is vast experience and professionalism of the cadre allow for this approach.

page 234

Your organization also has people with “vast experience and professionalism.” So the question is how to transfer that experience (and professionalism) to new leaders on the way up. By the way, 12 of the 25 days of the ARC put the students in the field on a series of increasingly difficult 4-day exercises. What would that mean for your company? Would it mean anything?

If you adopt a syncretic approach, you’ll find a lot of interesting and useful ideas in the book.

There were three personal qualities that the Germans clearly valued in their officers.They were knowledge, independence and the joy of taking responsibility. p. 16

The thorough education of the officers referred to earlier also ensured that they all thought along the same general lines. This went a long way in reducing the length of orders, since details did not have to be mentioned. p. 32 [Note: This is “doctrine.” It reduced organizational friction / entropy]

If a student changes his original decision in order to go along with the instructor-recommended solution, or if the student stays with a poor or out-of-date decision from higher authority simply because that is what “higher” told him to do, teachers should mark these traits as a failure. p. 214

The ARC targets a student’s character and accountability through the ambiguous design of missions. 216

The key outcome that we are trying to reach is producing Cadets that can make decisions in an environment of ambiguity. 217 [Note: Same as for business.]

In addition to the ARC, you might study the story of Major General John “Tiger Jack” Wood (chapter 15) and how he implemented many of these concepts as commander of the 4th Armored Division. His efforts paid off when his division spearheaded the breakout from Normandy. Essentially the 4th AD was so good that higher Allied commanders didn’t know what to do with it. So it wasn’t just the Germans who could create and employ units that had mastered the Blitzkrieg.

To recap: Although little of this will apply directly to you — unless you are in the business of developing military forces — the goal of encouraging creativity and initiative throughout the organization and harmonizing to achieve the objectives of the organization is universal. Develop a deeper understanding, rooted in human psychology and interpersonal dynamics, of why these methods work. Then apply that understanding to your own organization.

* Donald E. Vandergriff, Adopting Mission Command, Developing leaders for a superior command culture, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019.

**ROTC commission, 1969; Engineer Officer Basic Course, 1971.

2 thoughts on “Creating agile leaders

  1. My comment (here, 2012) quoting Boyd talking about Guderian’s “Verbal Orders Only” (circa 1983) … he had more to say about mutual trust

    Impact Of Teechnology On Military Manpower Requirements, Readiness And Operations (Senate Armed Services, Dec, 1980), from foils by Spinney, 5Dec1980, “Defense Facts Of Life” starting pg55)

    pg103-104 (tesseract/OCR->txt)

    Guderian’s conception resulted in the blitzkrieg, and a central ingredient
    of his idea was to use emerging communications technology to decentralize
    command and communications. In this regard, his brilliant innovations

    # Put a radio in every tank

    # Set up a division communications net so that the commander could
    command from any point in the division

    # Commanders forward, always be at the decisive point of action.
    Result: on the spot decision-making is quicker and clearer, orders
    were radioed back to Chief of Staff who was empowered to over-rule
    his superior if necessary, and personal leadership set a superb
    moral example

    # Verbal orders only, convey only general intentions, delegate authority
    to lowest possible level and give subordinates broad latitude to
    devise their own means to achieve commander’s intent. Subordinates
    restrict communications to upper echelons to general difficulties
    and progress, Result: clear, high speed, low volume communications,


    Defense Facts Of Life, here, above is on pg116

    Click to access defense-facts-of-life-1980.pdf

    also here

    Click to access a111544.pdf

    Hardcover/paperback on amazon
    reference here

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