Mission Command II: The Who, What, Where, When and Why: An Anthology, by Donald E. Vandergriff
Reviewed by The Maverick Sergeant
Published in February 2019, this book is the second volume of Donald Vandergriff and Stephen Webber’s Mission Command series, following on from their first edition published in 2017. Mission Command II: The Who, What, Where, When and Why: An Anthology (known by its abbreviated title MC2) consists of a diverse and complementary collection of essays on the concept of Mission Command. At its core, Mission Command is a philosophy that tells subordinates what to achieve but not how to do it – subordinates control how best to achieve the commanders’ intent. It is an approach used by the UK Armed Forces that decentralises command by empowering subordinates, at every level, to act freely within specified constraints to achieve success.
The anthology draws eighteen authors together, many of them serving or retired officers from the USA, Norway and the UK (including one Non-Commissioned Officer), along with historians and logisticians. Don Vandergriff is a retired US Army officer and an award winning author and teacher. His co-editor, Stephen Webber is a US Navy Reserve officer and a strategy and policy analyst. The contributors’ combined academic, professional, and experiential qualifications present a vast pool of knowledge that enriches the field of inquiry greatly and cements the credibility of the book. Testament to its originality, MC2 takes on a truly mixed approach to explore Mission Command. The book aims to promote discourse amongst the armed services around the true meaning and importance of the concept. For the authors, Mission Command involves everybody, at all levels, within the profession of arms.
MC2 provides a variety of perspectives and understanding of command culture, operating concepts, and leadership styles by examining and critically analysing personal and historical events. Central to the work is the German military’s philosophical culture, Auftragstaktik (Mission Command). The authors seek to highlight the importance of trust, competency, education, and training that enable a ‘Mission Command climate’ where subordinates have a freedom to act within set boundaries.
MC2 is eminently suited to modern day armed forces and this is not said lightly. Where official publications and doctrine fall far short of the mark by comparison, MC2 simply ‘gets it’. The contributors integrate and intertwine Mission Command with concepts, historical and modern military realities throughout the book. The eighteen chapters bring home the true meaning of the cultural phenomenon that is Mission Command. The authors do exceptionally well at exploring and understanding the organisational culture and philosophy present in today’s military, and elucidating the differences between modern forces and the goals of Mission Command.
Conceptual, historical and practical
MC2 provides the reader with the conceptual underpinning and meaning, historical case studies and practical application of Mission Command in three sections. The book’s main argument seeks to encourage senior leadership and policymakers to reflect on current organisational mindsets and structural practices. It strives to reform thinking by skilfully facilitating a deep reflection around the concept of Mission Command. The authors do this by presenting direct and challenging questions, by highlighting the momentous strategic importance of the concept, and by promoting radical thinking and discussion.
Section 1 explores the who and what of Mission Command and consists of four chapters. Since the concept must continually ‘pervade the entire organisation’, the who applies to everyone in the profession of arms. Thereafter, early chapters dive deeply into what Mission Command really is: a decentralised freedom to act, with speed, towards a unified goal within the boundaries of the commander’s intent. Essentially leaving those in the moment to decide the actions to take; the book repeatedly makes this crystal clear to the reader.
Naturally, Mission Command comes with inherent risk. A commander applying Mission Command must accept prudent risk since they are giving their subordinates ‘considerable leeway’ to achieve the aim. Section 1 highlights that this must be so — creative problem solving is essential in the chaos and complexities of modern conflict.
The book’s second section focuses on the where and when by analysing the concept in a variety of places and times ranging from World War Two, Vietnam, and the Industrial Revolution, through to present day settings. Thereafter, an interesting exploration of management theory within civilian organisations is used by the contributors; they compare and contrast Mission Command across other disciplines to discover whether they are advantageous or mutually exclusive. In short, organisational leadership concepts between the profession of arms and civilian organisations are far from mutually exclusive. The reader is left firmly knowing that there are precursors to successfully implementing a Mission Command philosophy in any organisation, starting with the premise that it must be fully understood in order to be effective.
The book’s final section is the most important, focusing on the why and how. Here, practical application and recommendations to ‘train, plan, operate, and interact’ are described to explore and implement Mission Command as a culture. Ultimately, this section’s contributors focus on the people that are needed to enact and sustain Mission Command. The chapters dutifully reveal that positively influencing the negative effects of ‘reward-seeking and fear-based leadership’ will facilitate a culture where trust and communication are key to keeping up with the pace of change. A solid case example of this notion is the acknowledgment of the need for mavericks and their ‘principled, creative and reform-minded’ leadership — those who seek action over status. In order to implement a true Mission Command culture, armed forces need smart, thinking and agile personnel to prevail over ‘bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility’. Only then can a Mission Command philosophy prevail over direct command approaches.
The viability of flowing concepts between military and civilian organisations are further explored in this section, paying particular attention to the vital function of logistics. This is of particular interest and utility for the reader, a personal early consideration when reading the book was to query how the art of Mission Command could possibly be applied to the science of logistics management. Harlan Kefalas (a US Army NCO) and Ross Kennedy (a U.S. civilian) overcome this apparent paradox in their chapter by helping the reader see that it starts and finishes with people — or, more to the point, leaders. Since conflict demands outcomes above and beyond procedures, and complementary chapters convey that ‘abstract knowledge to unforeseen circumstances trumps checklists and processes’, art is convincingly placed above science.
Interestingly, the final chapter by James Fish (a British Army Officer) lends its focus to the idea that Mission Command can assist with recruitment and retention. While it primarily explores the contemporary leadership practitioner domain, this chapter suggests that the armed forces already has its ‘hard won battlefield experience’ and that the principles of Mission Command should also apply within the barracks. When compared and contrasted to the lived experience of soldiers at ground level, this strikes as noteworthy and makes perfect sense. When employed wholeheartedly, a true organisation-wide Mission Command culture has much to be desired. This rings true for those who grapple with a lack of empowerment and those who are constrained by overzealous and unneeded control — MC2 strongly evidences this.
The main strength of this anthology resides in its diversity of thought and its multi-angled approach to exploring Mission Command. Combining eleven US, two UK, and two Norwegian armed services (some from land backgrounds and some maritime), along with three civilian authors, they cover many perspectives. Owing to the impressive array of features and aspects, the book can be of value for leaders at all levels of command within the profession of arms. This is arguable because, at its root, Mission Command stands tall over the detrimental effects of micromanagement. Empowerment, trust, freedom to act within guidelines… these appear to sound a lot like a cultural ideology that delivers high organisational performance, unlocks potential and maximises talent.
A noteworthy drawback lies with the book’s terminology and fast-flow of predominantly American-orientated armed services information. Given the jargon-heavy nature of the writing, there is significant potential for confusion for those less aware of, or have limited experience with, a culture of Mission Command. In other cases, particularly in the historical accounts, the information comes in thick and fast despite being context-rich in many cases. There also appears to be low editorial control and consistency through some chapters.
In its entirety, MC2 is not a light read. To truly grasp the philosophical concepts, some readers may have to re-read sections or entire chapters. While some will, others will dismiss the book and move onwards. That, however, would be a disservice to the profession of arms.
Encouraging personnel to foster tempo and agility
At a time when a culture of blind obedience within inflexible control can no longer be considered battle-winning, MC2 makes a valuable contribution to the literature in its field of study. Should the Sub-Unit Commander read this book? Absolutely, it will undoubtedly enrich and reinforce comprehension of the core subject. And that of the Strategic Corporal, SNCO, and Junior Officer? Also yes. After all, ground level personnel are using Mission Command in the complex and chaotic final bounds of battle. Although, it may be logical to consume a chapter at a time, combined with discussion amongst peers, to embed a deeper understanding. Strongly recommended; Mission Command II: The Who, What, Where, When and Why: An Anthology will encourage personnel at all levels to foster tempo and agility, to lead and to win — both in barracks and in combat.
If you want to know more about Donald Vandergriff’s other recent book check out our review of Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture