Führen mit Auftrag – Some thoughts on using mission command in business

Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth von Moltke is considered to be a founding father of mission command (Source: Anton von Werner, Public Domain)

The approaches to leadership in business organizations and military organizations differ. Military leadership philosphy may allow for more freedom than generally expected, as I will argue in the following. And private practice can learn from the military in this regard.

A brief guide to frustrating employees

During my time working in private practice, I regularly faced situations like the following: a superior assigned a new task to me; often in a short email from his mobile device, in just a few concise sentences, and marked with the words ‚urgent‘. No time for clarifying questions.

What happened then is that I would commence drafting the requested document or reviewing the legal situation immediately, only to find out later that the task had a peculiar background and that my work’s outcome did not consider the circumstances of this background. In other words: it was largely useless – a frustrating experience.

Speaking with colleagues, I found out that this seems to be a common problem.

So what was the reasons for frustration:

  • The assigned task was too specific, leaving no room for own thoughts;
  • I was unaware of my task’s background, for instance previous discussions between the client/management and my superior;
  • My superior assigned a task, but did not formulate the aim to be achieved; for different reasons: a) they never had thought about this question or b) they kept their plans in secret because „it was none of my business“.

Dude, where is your 3 ALPHA? The Commander’s intent

In a comparable situation, a German Army officer usually would ask his/her superior to clearly state his/her „3 ALPHA“ – the „Commander’s intent“.

In item 3 ALPHA of a standardized NATO operations order, the commander states a) how he/she seeks to fulfill his/her mission, b) where he/she designates the main effort and c) what the purpose of his/her mission is. Only after stating the 3 ALPHA, the commander will give specific orders to subordinate units.

Mission Command – Auftragstaktik

In this regard, NATO doctrine adheres to a principle called „mission command“, which is based on the German/Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik. Mission command’s philosophy is to set aims to be achieved, without prescribing (more than necessary) the ways for achieving this aim. Commanders will provide subordinate units with as much freedom as possible in fulfilling the units‘ respective tasks. They will impose constaints/restraints on the units‘ freedom to act only where it is absolutely necessary for coordinating the different units‘ activities. Mission command is opposed to Befehlstaktik where the commander explicitly phrases tasks and the way to achieve them – comparable to what I experienced in private practice. It may be astonishing for civilians to read that the German Army in its doctrine so much focusses on freedom of action, while at the same time it is also (in)famous for its slavish obiedience („Kadavergehorsam“).

The role of the subordinate – Mission essential tasks.

In order to avail themselves of their freedom of action, subordinate units need to understand their respective role in the bigger picture. For this reason, commanders explicitly formulate their intent, which describes the commanders´ operational concept, the main effort and the mission essential task („Wesentliche Leistung„) that the commanders seek to achieve. Once they have fully understood the respective commanderˋs intent, the subordinate units can derive their respective mission essential task („Wesentliche Leistung„), which they in turn have to achieve.

Mission Command: Strenghts and Weaknesses

So what is the advantage of mission command? First, it provides flexibility. Auftragstaktik was developed in the light of the rapidly changing battlefield of the 19th century. The commander could no longer see and communicate with all this troops. If a situation evolved differently for a unit than the commander initially had foreseen, the unit simply had no time to ask the commander for guidance. Thus, the unit had to act instantly without endangering the commanderˋs overall plan. In order to be able to act accordingly, subordinate units had to understand fully the overall plan (i.e. the commander’s intent) and the role they play in this game, in particular which tasks are essential for the entire plan („Wesentliche Leistung„).

Since the commander only states the aims to achieve, but not the way to achieving this aim, subordinate units can develop creativity. Solutions adapted by a subordinate unit, with „eyes on target“, generally will be more pertinent than solutions developed in a headquarterˋs map room (subsidiarity). To a certain extent, one could call this hive intelligence.

Hand in hand with creativity comes motivation if sub-commanders get the feeling that their decisions have a real impact, that they are really responsible. Especially intelligent subordinates, be it in the army or in business, appreciate if they can apply their knowledge. On the other hand, too much leeway can also create frustration: if the subordinate is unable to assume/ handle this responsibility, he or she might be overwhelmed.

Finally, mission command can be a time saver. The commander does not need to worry too much about the details, nor is he required to outline the exact way for each unit. Units can act instantly if the situation later changes in an unanticipated manner; they do not need to ask for the commanderˋs approval because they know the aim. But mission command also requires time: subordinate units need to fully grasp the commanderˋs intent, and this is essential. Therefore, the commander will have to share his vision at an initial stage. Also, a „common language“ is required for mutual understanding. Common education and training will foster this mutual understanding. Where this understanding is not yet there, e.g. because of a change of command, the commander has to be more explicit.

Conclusion: mindset change required

Applied correctly, mission command has many true benefits. There’s no reason why this principle should work only on a military environment. But appyling it in business requires a mindset change for those superiors who are either not used and/or unwilling to explain their work to their subordinates. In order to be able to do this, they have to learn stating their 3 ALPHA, their own intent.