Civilianizing Mission Command

The Army does a great job of training leaders who are both competent and display character. To be effective, leaders must demonstrate both. General Norman Schwarzkopf made this crystal clear when he spoke to the corps of cadets at West Point on May 1, 1991.

One of the ways the Army has institutionalized those elements is through mission command which encompasses centralized planning and resourcing while empowering subordinate decision-making and decentralized execution.

Business leaders would do well to abide by the principles of mission command which include:


Mutual trust

Mission orders

Commander’s intent

Shared understanding

Disciplined initiative

Risk management

I will briefly explain what each principle means to me, not from a military perspective, but from the perspective of leading civilian organizations.

Competence. Competence is about being mentally fit and displaying proficiency in the tactical and technical aspects of your job. Leader competence is also about communicating a vision to those you lead, having the courage to make decisions, even with imperfect information, communicating clearly, and developing future leaders.

Mutual trust. Cultivating trust in the team or organization you lead is essential and integrity and strong moral character are the sine qua non of trust. A leader must be beyond reproach and completely reliable. Some of the best practices for cultivating trust are trusting others first, leading by example, caring for those you lead, and enforcing standards.

Mission orders. A mission order is a task and purpose. Tell someone what to do and why they need to do it and let them figure out how to accomplish that mission. Leaders must provide the appropriate amount of guidance depending on the training and experience of the subordinate. Leaders must also be clear on expectations and schedule a time for the subordinate to provide a brief back on how they will implement the plan.

Commander’s intent. A leader’s intent consists of several elements and really provides guidance and sets expectations. The elements of intent include the overarching purpose of what the organization is trying to achieve, key tasks that the leader believes are essential to accomplish the project, and what the end state of the project should look like.

Shared understanding. A leader must strive to ensure a shared understanding of what needs to be done across the organization. A leader can do this by communicating a consistent message repeatedly and having a subordinate leader engage in those briefbacks I mentioned earlier. A leader must be aware that those in the organization do not have the years of experience or the understanding of the situation the leader has. That is why a leader must continually communicate and ensure the message remains consistent.

Disciplined initiative. Disciplined initiative empowers people in the organization to make decisions and use initiative as long as those decisions and actions fall within the guidelines of the leader’s intent. For example, if the leader proclaims that exceptional customer service is what the company must be known for, then workers who interface with the customer daily should be allowed to make decisions that will make the customer experience exceptional. If a leader positions the company as a low-cost provider, then workers must be allowed to take the initiative to reduce costs.

Risk management. There are no gains without risk. However, risks must be managed by analyzing the risks associated with decisions and projects, determining risk probability and impact on the organization, and either accepting the risk as it is, mitigating the risk in some way, or determining that the risk is not worth it and choosing another course of action.

I believe that businesses that learn from and implement the Army’s mission command approach will create a great culture. Business leaders who buy into this approach will be leading with competence and character. As a result, the business will attract better employees, employee retention will be high, customer satisfaction will increase, and profits will rise.

About John Gronski

Major General John L. Gronski (U.S. Army Retired) is the founder and CEO of Leader Grove LLC, a leadership consulting firm. John is the author of two books, “Iron-Sharpened Leadership” and “The Ride of Our Lives” and he is an international and Fortune 500 speaker. Learn more about John at https://johngronski.com/

Continue To Learn

John created a great online leadership development program. You can take online leadership development courses including Cultivating Trust, Introduction to Emotional Intelligence, and Conflict Management. Introduction to Change Leadership will be available soon and more courses will follow. Once you complete a course, take a short quiz, attain an 80% score, and download a certificate of completion. Find out more and enroll at Store.LeaderGrove.com

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