Five Reflections on Building a Mission Command Culture – Part 2
By The Army Leader
In Part 1 I gave what I think are the first two rules of thumb for a mission command culture. Rules based on establishing your intent and communicating it. The next three rules are about creating a culture of trust and the freedom to speak truth.
3. ‘Delegate until you feel uncomfortable and then delegate some more’
Delegation helps empowerment, empowerment helps foster both trust and a culture that expects subordinates to act – i.e. a mission command-friendly culture. However, delegation is difficult to do effectively. In general, you got to where you are today by doing the job of those below you, so it’s easy to think that those you delegate to will probably do a worse job than you. One rule to overcome this is to find the level where you are comfortable delegating and then delegate a little lower. The true delegation ninja will go a level lower – Hence Lt Gen Mark Carlton-Smith’s mantra ‘delegate until you feel uncomfortable and then delegate some more.’
Delegation should make you uncomfortable, in the same way that the most developmental tasks you were given by your boss were just outside your comfort zone.
Ok, so in theory you should really only delegate one level down and let your subordinate make the choice, but it’s worth letting everyone in your team know the level of risk you are willing to take and thus how far down people really are able make decisions. I’ve tried to think of this as like a slider on a scale. Adjust the slider up and down until you find the comfortable/uncomfortable line, then click it one notch below. Once you’ve seen it can work, think about taking it down another notch.
(Although it goes without saying that you shouldn’t let people supervise training or safety-critical tasks if unqualified.)
4. To encourage honest views, start by asking for the most junior opinion first and then work up the group.
Getting people to give their honest views isn’t just about having diversity of thought or using a participative leadership style. It helps subordinates feel bought in to decisions and understand your intent. It also makes junior subordinates think and shows you trust their judgement enough to value it. In short, done the right way it encourages thinking, builds trust and helps create clarity of intent.
I was first exposed to the idea when I attended a Court Martial (not as the accused, I might add). In Courts Martial the junior member of the board gives their verdict first, to ensure they are not influenced by the opinion of the more senior members. Even if a senior officer’s opinion didn’t influence a junior officer’s opinion at Court Martial, it sure as hell works that way in the rest of the Army. When a CO gives his view, asks his RSM’s view (which concurs with the CO) and only then asks his Company Commanders, everyone can read the writing on the wall. Even the most confident man in the room knows a contrary view is going to go against the two most powerful people present. The power of authority to stifle honesty is huge and Army leaders wield that power.
It happens just the same at company, platoon and even section level. So ask the opinion of the most junior person first. Then go up in seniority, only giving your opinion last. And when I say seniority, I perhaps mean influence. At company level, perhaps ask your junior Platoon Commander before your senior Platoon Sergeant.
For some, it’s uncomfortable being asked your opinion without the comfort blanket of knowing your boss’s opinion. This is because we tend not to value junior opinions (whilst being annoyed that our opinions are undervalued by our superiors). The best way to overcome this discomfort is by asking junior people first – get them used to having and expressing a well thought out opinion.
Finally, if you disagree with their views, don’t shoot them down in front of their peers. If you do they’ll never risk speaking truth to you again. If their peers shoot them down, you need to step in. All this doesn’t mean your command suddenly becomes a democracy, it just means you explain why you rejected their opinion. As Patrick Lencioni points out in his book, ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, subordinates don’t need consensus to buy-in to your intent, they just need to have their opinions aired.
5. Treat other teams as if they are part of your team.
Sometimes it goes against the grain of what you’ve tried to inculcate in your team. You’ve spent so long building up your team to think they are elite, better than everyone else, that they don’t want to take others into their team. Especially if they have previously been competitors. But if it’s good enough for Gen Stan McChrystal, author of from , it’s good enough for you.
“It Takes a Network to Defeat a Network. With that, we took the first step toward an entirely new conversation.”
“Sharing information would help build relationships and the two together would kindle a new, coherent, adaptive entity that could win the fight.” Gen Stanley McChrystal,
Mission command only flourishes where there is trust and mutual understanding. When you need to work closely with another team – which is rarely optional in modern warfare – you have to build that trust quickly. Making it clear you consider them part of your team sends a strong message that you are ready to trust. Think about where you consider ‘your team’ to end, then look one step beyond and link up. McChrystal encouraged just this. He thought the job of a modern leader was to link groups to create networks of trust and shared information that in turn create shared understanding. Critical to achieving mission command.
On a previous tour in Helmand our unit ensured it has an ‘all of one company’ ethos. It made a tradition of presenting unit flashes to attached arms after they had served with the unit. Their own chains of command soon got them to take the flashes off, but it made the point: you are of the same blood as us. Sometimes, if your team doesn’t feel the need to get close to the other teams. It can take a real effort to build these inter-team links and it can be a long term battle to build up trust. This is why the leader has such a strong role.
Embedded subunit in your battlegroup? Attached arms in your squadron? Are you embedded in a multinational unit? Find the time to run a joint social. Ensure clarity – brief at every opportunity that you consider them brother in arms. Cross-post and welcome liaison officers (even if it’s only a short rotational post). When sharing across teams generates success, celebrate it – people need to know what they are doing is right. Hold people to account when they don’t treat other teams like their own. Have regular coffee with your oppos and give something up for them – they are now in your team.
Getting to a Mission Command Culture
These 5 ideas aren’t just based on theories and books. They are based on what I’ve seen in several units that have built a shared intent, a mutually trusting culture and the freedom for subordinates to speak truth to the leader. Each of them can make people uncomfortable if the behaviours represent a change from the norm. Change can cause discomfort, even if it is positive. But you’ll need these behaviours to foster mission command.