Education for Mission Command: The Missing Link

Education for Mission Command

Donald Vandergriff

“How to Develop for Mission Command: The Missing Link”. This is a smaller version of my forthcoming book by the same title due through USNI Press next spring. It is currently a chapter in Mission Command The Who, What, Where, When and Why: An Anthology It talks about where we are with our out of date education methodology, and where we need to go to enable people to succeed in a culture of Mission Command.

The philosophy of Auftragstaktik is aimed at initiative of subordinates within and outside of the scope provided by the commander’s intent. While acting within the intent, in general, does not cause problems, acting in alternation of or opposite to given orders regularly will. Deviating from orders within the philosophy of Auftragstaktik is justified by the grundlegende Lageanderung—fundamental change of situation, or if acting upon a higher responsibility to the unit.3

Martin Sonnenberger
Initiative Within the Philosophy of Auftragstaktik

The Army defines Mission Command as the “exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”4 But before a culture of Mission Command (Auftragstaktik) succeeds, the Army must possess the moral courage to identify countless Industrial age barriers.5 These barriers must be torn down and rebuilt or eliminated altogether. If they are not, the current attempt to realize Mission Command will exist only as rhetoric and buzz words on PowerPoint slides and doctrinal slogans. The consequence will be the disillusionment of the next generation of leaders when they hear one thing but experience the same old ineffective actions. The question remains, how does one develop people to succeed under Mission Command?

Simple: the Army has to institutionalize it across its training and operational commands.6


educationIn the past, the “Competency theory” of learning dominated course curricula, and there remain signs of it today in leader development. Competency theory is a product of the “Industrial Age outlook that once, by necessity, governed the way military forces prepared for war.” During the time when we relied on a massed citizen army of draftees, this “assembly line”7 mentality made sense, but the disadvantage was that this emphasized output more than the individual quality of the product.8

Competency-based education evolved from the Principles of Scientific Management developed by management and efficiency theorist Frederick Taylor in the 1890s.9 By the end of World War II, most Public Schools had adopted it as a foundation for their curriculum. Educators used Taylor’s ideas to create proficiency standards in the classroom selected by a centralized authority. “Industrial-age organizations seek routine and habit achieved through standardized procedures. Complex tasks are therefore broken into simple steps to ensure that employees are both interchangeable and easily replaced. Bureaucratic hierarchies tend to value quantifiable assessment of specific aspects of complex managerial tasks.”10 A modern manifestation of Competency-Based education is the tendency today for teachers to “teach the test” to ensure better scores on standardized tests. This is teaching “what to think” instead of “how to think.”11

Today, some leader-centric programs within the institutional Army still reflect the old “assembly-line approach.”12 Rigid order and control from the top are at the heart of all curriculum put together by Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) that uses the Competency Theory as its foundation. This continues despite the rhetoric about adaptability development.13

Leader development for the full spectrum of 21st century military operations must be based on the quality of leaders, not quantity of personnel, at every grade level. The rule should be, “Soldiers deserve and require trained leaders.” Schools must constantly put students in difficult, unexpected situations, and then require them to decide and act under time pressure. Schooling must take students out of their “comfort zones.” Stress—mental and moral as well as physical—must be constant. War games, tactical decision games, map exercises and free play field exercises must constitute the bulk of the curriculum. Drill and ceremony and adherence to “task, condition, and standards” (TCS)—task proficiency—in the name of process are not important.14

Under Mission Command development the emphasis should be growing the decision maker by explaining the reason for the task and teaching in the context of a problem-solving exercise. Higher command levels overseeing officers’ and non-commissioned officers’ (NCO) schools must look for flexible courses guided by outcomes rather than inputs and allow instructors to evolve their lesson plans using innovative teaching techniques and tools for an ever-changing environment.

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