Five Reflections on Building a Mission Command Culture – Part 1
By The Army Leader
Mission command is more than just the British and US Armys’ philosophy of command – it’s more or less the NATO philosophy of command. It’s founded on the clear expression of intent by commanders, and the freedom of subordinates to act to achieve that intent.
There have been many, many articles on what it is, how we might achieve it, what prevents us from using it, and whether it’s more than a philosophy. But if you are a junior leader you’ll want more than just to understand the theory. You’ll really need to understand how it manifests itself. Sure, theory is helpful, but what does good look like?
Over the last decade and a half, in peace and on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with British soldiers and with partners and allies, I’ve learnt and reflected on these five principles. They’ve given me a good chance of building a mission command culture by having a vision, communicating it and building the trust needed to execute it. I’m not sure I’ve always followed them or achieved it as much as I should have, but I’ve always found them useful during command. Feel free to comment and disagree: targets fall when hit.
1. Make sure you have a vision. Or at least a mission.
It might sound over-grand, but if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know how to get there? More importantly, how will your subordinates follow your intent?
Vision is part of our doctrine – check out the British Army’s Leadership Code or Doctrine. A good leader needs to provide vision, support people and challenge them to achieve it. It all starts with the vision. If you aren’t comfortable with the concept of having a vision for your team, then let’s call it a mission and use mission-type verbs. But you need something to stop you getting blown in every direction by the prevailing winds.
It’s sad to admit, but I’ve deployed on ops without being given a mission. It took years before I felt the confidence to sit down and accept that if I wasn’t given one, I damn sure had to write one for myself. And also to realise that my team needed one in peace as well as on ops.
You could read a thousand business books on how to create a vision. Take a leaf from ‘Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies’ by James Collins and Jerry Porras. Your vision should be Big, Hairy and Audacious. I’d also suggest a part of your vision should be something that your team will achieve after you’ve left. For enduring team success, concentrate on your personal legacy, not your personal achievements.
I found good advice in ‘The Advantage’ by Patrick Lencioni. Ask yourself: Why does your team exist? What job do we do? How do we plan to succeed at it? What is our priority, right now? Who does what? What behaviour is acceptable in our team in order to succeed? If you can, send your subordinates away training and gather your leadership team to answer these questions. If not, work them out yourself. Or no one will be able to act within your intent.
2. Overcommunicate clarity, at least two levels down.
When Slim was fighting in Burma he ensured he and all his command team got around to all their units and told them what the Army was doing, why and how
“We, my commanders and I, talked to units, to collections of officers, to headquarters, to little groups of men, to individual soldiers casually met as we moved around. And we all talked the same stuff with the same object.” Field Marshall Slim
In ‘The Advantage’, Patrick Lencioni describes one of his four disciplines as ‘overcommunicate clarity’. It’s not enough for the leader to come up with a mission or vision and just endlessly repeat it. The message must be bought-into (and preferably crafted) by the whole leadership team and repeatedly communicated clearly in both words and actions.
“I’ve heard claims that employees won’t believe what leaders are communicating to them until they’ve heard it seven times. Whether the real number is five, seven or seventy seven, the point is that people are sceptical about what they’re being told unless they hear it consistently” Patrick Lencioni
If you want his advice, Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s head of communications, a man who knew a thing or two about communication) said in his book ‘Winners’ that “when you’re sick and tired of hearing the same old message, other people are just about getting it.”
In ‘One Mission – How Leaders Build a Team of Teams‘ Chris Fussell gives a great example of how Gen McChrystal reiterated his intent. His finally summary comments at the daily O&I Forum were always a reminder of his core strategic theme – every day.
If mission command only works with a thorough understanding of the 2 up’s intent, then you need to ensure you and your leadership team over communicate that message at least two levels down. Perhaps during operations all you need to do is issue a set of orders. But outside of operations, don’t believe it is simply enough. It probably isn’t during operations, either.
If you’ve worked out your vision then ensure you communicate it, over and again. Beyond just your written command directive and your regular team meetings. Talk about it when you have a smoke or beer with your guys. During sport. During training. At the end of the week before the guys go home. The most difficult thing about this is ensuring you don’t make people “sick and tired of hearing the same old message“. It can’t just sound like you are repeating the same sound bite over and again – the message needs to be genuine.
Part 2 – Trust and the freedom to speak
These first two thoughts about building a mission command culture are about establishing your intent and communicating it. The next three in Part 2 are available right now. They’re about ensuring there is a culture of trust and freedom to speak truth within your team.