Fostering a Culture of Mission Command

Commanders use mission orders to communicate intent to subordinates. In turn, subordinate leaders frame their own mission orders around the commander’s intent and exercise disciplined initiative to solve problems, seize the momentum and accomplish the unit’s mission.

While the science of developing mission orders is consistently taught and refined throughout the Army’s training domains, leaders struggle with training subordinate leaders in the art of exercising disciplined initiative to allow the best possible decision to be made on the battlefield. To enable leaders to more effectively train their subordinates in the foundations of mission command, we must understand what mission command is, why it is still relevant and, finally, how to apply mission command in the organization.

Let’s start by analyzing the theory’s core principles.

What is mission command? Many young leaders in the Army, including myself at one point, understood mission command purely as a warfighting function that provides a leader with a scientific system of mission orders used to communicate intent to subordinates. Then, as subordinate leaders execute their assigned tasks, mission command becomes a complex system of technological and redundant reporting procedures specified by a higher headquarters to understand conditions from the subordinate leader’s standpoint on the ground.

In reality, mission command is something inherently misunderstood by young leaders in the Army, in part because the term and definition don’t synchronize in their minds. Most Army leaders understand that in the absence of orders, they must make a decision to maintain the momentum of the mission; the issue, however, is how to make the best possible decision within the commander’s intent.

Mission command is defined in Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 6-0 as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander [leader] using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s [leader’s] intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”1 Most Army leaders can agree mutual understanding of this concept but universally ask themselves the same question: “How can my organization become better at training and embracing the principles of mission command?” First, we need to look at the history behind the doctrine.

Mission command, or Auftragstaktik, has its theoretical seeds rooted in Prussian, post-Napoleonic military ideas. Originally proposed as an idea by GEN Gerhard Von Scharnhorst in the early 19th Century, Autragstaktik focused on subordinate leaders making decisions based on initiative and analysis of events happening on the battlefield rather than deferring those decisions to higher commanders and losing the initiative of the operation.2

Scharnhorst began developing and teaching this principle at the turn of the 19th Century as an instructor at the German military academy in Berlin. His pupils included none other than Carl Von Clausewitz and Helmuth Von Moltke. Both these military theorists furthered the idea of Auftragstaktik and broadened the concept’s institutional reach not only to the officer corps, but also to the noncommissioned-officer corps. The framework was instituted and created a cultural shift in the German army from the stringent, orders-driven and rigid-decision structure of the Prussian army of the Napoleonic Wars to a more fluid, free-thinking and initiative-based structure of the German army of the 20th Century. This type of decision-making structure was unique and cutting-edge for any military in the world at that time.3

Von Moltke once wrote of Auftragstaktik, “The advantage of the situation will never be fully utilized if subordinate commanders wait for orders. It will be generally more advisable to proceed actively and keep the initiative than to wait to the law of the opponent.”4

The U.S. Army adopted the mission-command principles to provide itself with a comparative advantage against the Soviet threat in Western Europe. Based on German success in World War II and the realization that the United States would likely fight against a numerically superior, near-peer threat like the Soviet Union, the new U.S. doctrine called “AirLand Battle” was developed by the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command commander, GEN Donn A. Starry, in the early 1980s to replace the “active defense” doctrine used since 1976. “AirLand Battle” was published in 1982 and revised to include operational art in 1986. The new doctrine placed a premium on a qualitative approach that was designed to “outthink” Soviet forces using our competitive edge in the training of the human element rooted in mission command to disrupt the enemy’s decision-making process, or the observe, orient, decide and act loop.5

Why is mission command still relevant on the modern and future battlefield? As Army leaders, we ask ourselves, “Why is a leader decision-making process developed in 19th Century Prussia still relevant today or in the future?” Whether one believes the U.S. Army will continue to combat a decentralized and nonconventional enemy, a peer or near-peer nation-state, or a hybrid of both, mission command will continue to remain relevant in the current and future battlefield because it is inherently human and must be trained to be applied correctly and with sound judgment.

Mission command is intrinsically based on art, not science; therefore, a technological approach to command that allows a computer using mathematical algorithms to make decisions in the absence of orders does not take into account the human factor necessary to take an exponential amount of variables into consideration instantly.

Some may wish to offer a different technological solution than a so-called super decision-making computer, in turn arguing for the implementation of more sensor and battle-command systems that would allow higher commanders to supplement or even usurp the decision-making authority of subordinate leaders on the battlefield. These technological solutions have three fallacies:

  • First, when the U.S. Army fights against a near-peer or peer threat, how can we guarantee that the networks that transmit sensor and command-and-control information will remain intact to allow centralized commanders to make those decisions? The cyberthreat on the future battlefield is a real threat that should be taken into account at all levels of war.
  • Second, if an enemy is able to harness similar technological capabilities for battle command and sensor systems on the battlefield – or even worse, contribute false information into our networks – what will allow our force to gain a competitive advantage against our foe?
  • Third, many times the junior leader understands the cultural and historical trends in his operating environment much better than a higher-level commander is able to, as our recent experience while fighting a decentralized, non-nation state enemy has shown us.

Mission-command technology, like radio and digital communication, should be used to augment and enhance the human decision-making capability, not supplant it entirely. For these reasons, mission command remains a critical concept that must be trained and embraced by all Army leaders.

As a leader, how can I foster the application of mission command in my organization? The concept of mission command is commonly misunderstood by many Army leaders. Leaders must foster an environment that allows their subordinates to apply the mission-command principles and make initiative-based decisions based on the enemy situation and in the absence of detailed guidance. While a leader is “responsible for everything that happens and does not happen in his organization,” this idea sometimes drives organizations with both experienced and inexperienced leaders to situational paralysis because that leader is either unwilling to make a decision or to allow his subordinates to make intent-based decisions. Many times a leader takes these actions and restricts mission command, believing a failure of the organization would be tied to the failure of that leader as well as his overall success and competency.

Changing the culture in an organization that’s comfortable operating in this manner is neither a quick or linear process. Leaders at all levels can adapt an organization to believe in and practice mission command by creating a universal understanding of the concept, developing trust with subordinates and fostering a culture that enables mission command.

To drive an organization to change its operational culture, a leader must first create a universal understanding of the concept. The Army enables leaders to create this understanding in a few ways, including instruction of the theory of command in all its institutional-training domains, as well as publishing doctrine like ADP 6-0 as a framework to explain the theory.

Leaders who want to drive organizational change should use a second Army training domain, self-development, to further understand the conceptual roots of mission command. Once a leader develops a mastery of mission command, he should then communicate his understanding to his subordinates.

Many Army leaders accept that creating a universal understanding in an organization of mission command is difficult and takes personal commitment. As a tank-platoon leader, I found this was most easily accomplished by allowing my subordinate leaders to directly assist in my leader-planning scope and process at certain times. For example, instead of personally planning a simple event like an M-9 pistol range that my platoon was assigned to coordinate for company training, I used team and squad leaders in my organization to conduct troop-leading procedures for the training event as a collaborative-planning group under my instruction. Later, they would execute and refine the event based on the intent they developed.

By instructing these junior leaders in my platoon on tasks including conducting a leader’s reconnaissance, writing an operations order, preparing a risk-management worksheet, developing an intent statement and conducting a rehearsal, I was able to teach my junior leaders not only leader tasks to use in their teams and crews, but also about considerations that were important to our entire platoon and the way I wanted them to think when we conducted a mission as an organization. With this interaction, my leaders and I were able to develop a shared understanding, using constant dialogue and a culminating after-action review, on the platoon-level operations process that served as the foundation for more complex situations in the future. With this knowledge, my junior leaders have a greater ability to conceptualize mission orders and use disciplined orders to accomplish missions given to them.

Another effective technique I used as a company commander to create understanding of mission command forced platoon leaders and Bradley vehicle commanders to seize the initiative of a tactical scenario under simulated conditions in the Close-Combat Tactical Trainer (CCTT). Developing scenarios that allow platoon leaders to fight past the objective and seize the initiative of an entire operation requires a great deal of in-depth preparation as well as the ability to communicate the conceptual situation of the battlefield environment from both the enemy and friendly perspectives. Using the battalion S-2, company intelligence-support team or company executive officer to develop the enemy situation and actively fight the enemy element in CCTT against the friendly platoon leader allows the platoon leader to make timely decisions based on the company intent and a constantly changing enemy situation.

For example, once a platoon moving on the offense completes its actions on the objective and begins consolidation and reorganization, the tactical scenario typically ends. Instead, leaders could present the platoon with a visual cue of a retrograding main body in an adjacent maneuver corridor in the area. Evaluate what actions the platoon takes based off the intent given from the company order. Does the platoon acknowledge and understand the enemy formation moving? Does the platoon leader maintain contact with that formation? Does he attempt to affect the retrograding enemy? Similarly, in the identical consolidation and reorganization scenario, present the platoon leader with visual contact of the enemy’s support zone or logistics elements and evaluate his actions.

Although these scenarios may sound simple, many leaders may lack the conceptual understanding of the scenario or find themselves in a decision-making paralysis of information overload.

Secondly, developing trust between leaders and subordinates is one of the most important aspects of successful integration of mission command into an organization. Most leaders can agree that subordinates need to know that their leaders trust their decision-making and conceptual abilities. Developing trust between leaders and subordinates is often the most complicated part of developing a cohesive team that is grounded in mission command. Trust cannot be attained by leaders through grand gestures; rather, it must be developed over time using consistent behavior that earns respect.

A critical piece of developing trust in an organization is counseling. Counseling subordinates not only sets the foundation of expectations from the leader to his subordinates, but it also sets the tone for what a junior leader can expect from his senior leader. Counseling direct subordinates is incredibly important, but counseling subordinates to the lowest level possible is critical to developing trust.

“Counseling” can take many forms. I consider counseling everything from a prepared vision and counseling form in a sterile environment between a platoon leader and platoon sergeant all the way to sitting on the back deck of a tank for 20 minutes talking with the newest driver in my tank platoon who just arrived from basic training. The latter, in my opinion, is just as important as the former in developing trust in my organization. If Soldiers and junior leaders believe their leaders truly care about them, their family, their hobbies, their goals, etc., a leader will likely have an easier time achieving the level of trust needed in an organization to allow the unit’s leaders to trust one another and use mission command in war.

The final element critical to developing an organization that practices mission command is fostering a culture that enables mission command. Developing a culture in an organization is one of the toughest tasks a leader is charged with. This can often take an immense amount of time and effort, especially if radical change is needed. The most important piece of developing a culture that fosters mission command is for an organization from top to bottom to share in its successes and failures as one. No leader in an organization should ever believe his individual success or failure was the most critical decision in whether the organization achieved its goals. The next time a leader is placed in that same situation in combat, he may feel handcuffed or restrained into mistakenly believing he is the single point of success or failure of the entire operation. This idea would likely force that leader to make a decision based on outside emotional factors rather than his understanding of his higher commander’s intent and the current situation and problem presented to him.

At the same time, subordinates need to understand that leaders entrust subordinates to take control of the situation and make the best decision possible. I use the following saying: “Fight the problem, don’t let the problem fight you” to express this to my subordinates. This idea should empower subordinates to take an active and forward-leaning approach rather than a passive and reactive stance to the problems and opportunities presented to them.

Lastly, subordinate leaders need to understand to use doctrine as a framework to make a decision to retain the initiative and exploit the enemy’s weakness. Subordinate leaders should understand that a leader strays from doctrine because he knows what doctrine says, not because he is ignorant of it. As leaders, we empower subordinates to make the best decisions for their organizations based on training, but it is critical they understand the doctrinal approach to accomplishing a given mission.

In conclusion, many leaders in the Army today do not understand mission command, or even worse, are unwilling to allow subordinates the freedom to make decisions using disciplined initiative. Although it was developed more than 200 years ago, mission command will remain relevant in the future of war. Mission command can only be harnessed if leaders set the conditions for its implementation and success by creating a universal understanding of the concept, developing trust with subordinates and fostering a culture that enables mission command.


1 ADP 6-0, 2012.

2 Shamir, Eitan. Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.