Creating mission-oriented leaders

Don’t you want your organization to run better? Of course you do: Get rid of the office politics, cliques, backstabbing, passive aggression — morale goes up, blood pressure goes down, objectives are routinely exceeded, competitors / opponents get trounced. Hence, the size of modern CEO offices, which need to be that big to hold all the books on how to actually do it.

Among the many approaches, “agility” proposes to use time to shape the competitive environment, and, if necessary, react to changes before they become fatal. Nestled within the agile approaches, there is a school that insists the best way to do this is to fire up creativity and initiative throughout the organization and harmonize them to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Note that “throughout” includes everybody from new hires to the aforementioned CEO.

Boyd’s philosophy is obviously in this category. He proposed an organizational climate, often known by the acronym EBFAS,* whose purpose was to produce organizations that could shape, reorient to, and exploit rapidly changing situations.  Boyd regarded conflict as characterized by deception, surprise, ambiguity, stress and threat, which can lead to fear, mistrust, and a breakdown of cohesion. “Reorient to” is a way of saying that you understand such situations better than your opponents. “Rapidly” implies that given time, your opponents will figure these things out; don’t give them the time.

The “E” in EBFAS stands for Einheit, for which Boyd adopted the English “mutual trust.” It is fundamental, so organizational cultures that focus on building mutual trust are sometimes called “trust based.”  Of the other letters, perhaps the best known is “A” for another German word, Auftragstaktik, often translated as “mission command.”  It has become something of a sub-genre in management literature.**

Last month, I featured an article by Don Vandergriff on Auftragstaktik, where he described the origins of the concept and why high performing organizations use it.

Don has now followed up with a well-documented piece on how to train people for Auftragstaktik .  He describes an emerging methodology within the Army, Adaptive Leader Soldier Training and Education (ALSTE), and an implementation, the Army Reconnaissance Course, that have proven to develop leaders who can excel under the philosophy of mission command. These programs reflect initiatives Don has been working on for years and documented as far back as Raising the Bar (2006).

*I’ve done several posts on EBFAS — please use the search feature in the right column if you’re interested.

**For an in-depth look at Auftragstaktik, I can recommend Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action and Don’s recent book on Mission Command.

Deep foundation for Auftragstaktik

Don Vandergriff has a nice piece at Small Wars Journal on how Auftragstaktik developed and why.  He makes what to me is an extremely important but generally overlooked point that mission orders, which is how most people explain the term, are not what defines Auftragstaktik but represent evidence that the underlying culture is alive and working.

As a culture, Auftragstaktik implies that those who can influence the organization — top leaders, board members, large shareholders, influential members of Congress, etc. — have given careful thought to and so evolved practices for selecting, training, retaining, and promoting people who embody the philosophy and separating those who do not.

If this happens, what we call “mission orders” (or something, perhaps, even better) will be the natural outcome.


Mission Command 201

Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why, An Anthology
by Donald Vandergriff (Author, Editor),‎ Stephen Webber (Editor
August 2017

I like good anthologies, and this is a very good one. Good anthologies can do several things, among them:

  • Provide discrete bins of thought that you can mine for nuggets — parts for your snowmobiles.
  • Let you look at a concept, in this case, “mission command,” from alternative viewpoints. Sometimes this can lead to an “Aha!” moment.
  • Expand your orientation — are you really doing all you could to engage the hippocampus? Be honest, now.

Cover of Mission CommandDon and Steve have done a great job of collecting essays that take you far beyond “What is Mission Command?”  In fact, when you get through, you may find that you know less about the concept than you thought. For example, people sometimes equate mission command with the German term Auftragstaktik.  But Auftrag doesn’t mean “mission.” It’s more like the English “contract.” When Boyd’s talking about “the German concept of ‘mission,'” he notes on Patterns of Conflict, slide 76:

The German concept of mission can be thought of as a contract, hence an agreement, between superior and subordinate. The subordinate agrees to make his actions serve his superior’s intent in terms of what is to be accomplished, while the superior agrees to give his subordinate wide freedom to exercise his imagination and initiative in terms of how intent is to be realized.

As part of this concept, the subordinate is given the right to challenge or question the feasibility of mission if he feels his superior’s ideas on what can be achieved are not in accord with the existing situation or if he feels his superior has not given him adequate resources to carry it out. Likewise, the superior has every right to expect his subordinate to carry out the mission contract when agreement is reached on what can be achieved consistent with the existing situation and resources provided.

So there’s obviously a lot more to the concept than simply “Tell people what to do and let them decide how.”   Don’s and Steve’s anthology will help you broaden your understanding and, perhaps, improve your use of the underlying philosophy in your own organization.

All the chapters are good, but I’d like to draw your attention to a couple that you might find especially broadening.

Quo vadis, mission command?

First, Grant Martin’s chapter on “Type II” mission command for situations where “the commander’s intent is ambiguous or weakly connected to the political purpose of the operation. … What should be added is how to conduct mission command when the purpose of the operation is unclear, where the scope is unbounded, and where cause and effect are not linear.”  Most business applications, in other words.  He proposes a new definition

In non-linear causality  situations, however, leaders must both assist and be assisted by their subordinates to best appreciate the context of the situation and during execution must learn and constantly adjust the appreciation of the context based on that learning. Of note: The learning must go both ways.

Boyd, didn’t like the term “command & control,” suggesting instead “leadership & appreciation.” Where does this leave mission “command”? If Martin’s idea intrigues you, you might explore other possibilities for expanding the concept. Boyd used the term “organic,” which has some of the bottom-up flavor suggested by Martin (there’s an example in chapter 5 of Certain to Win). Another idea is not to issue orders, even mission orders, at all, a possibility explored by David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around!**

The requisite physical energy***

Daniel Markert and Scott Sonnon introduce subjects that you don’t often find in leadership texts in their chapter, “Operationally fit for mission command.” For those of you not up on your neurophysiology, this one may be a little challenging. Just accept that the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and their kin are regions within the brain (or you could Google them and find out where). Markert and Sonnon address a major but often overlooked issue in leadership, that leaders inhabit human bodies:

The rapid onset of the fatigue reflex elevates stress arousal and degrades cognitive function with negative effects on shared understanding, risk awareness, creativity, and decisiveness.

They explain why this is true and what you can do about it. Recall that Boyd suggested that “Without a common outlook, superiors cannot give subordinates freedom of action and maintain coherency of ongoing action” (Patterns 74), so this is important stuff, and Markert’s and Sonnon’s chapter may start you down a productive path.

Explore, enjoy, learn, question.

Preview / buy Mission Command at Amazon


*This idea is implicit in Boyd’s EBFAS climate. Stephen Bungay develops it in detail in The Art of Action, where he, essentially, equates Auftragstaktik with Boyd’s entire EBFAS climate. Mini review in  an earlier post.

**Also covered in my presentation, All by Ourselves, available on the Articles page and in the mini review mentioned above.

***Observation by Gen Hermann Balck, Patterns, p. 118.