The Basics: Developing Leaders for Mission Command

At the start of every adaptability workshop I teach, I poll my students with this question, “please take a minute to list three items, in priority of which you feel is most important, you define as constituting what everyone calls ‘the basics’?” After which I take samples from a few of the students, sometimes as many as 15 (if I have a big class). As they list their “basics,” I ask them to define each one and tell the rest of us why they think their lists are important. Afterward, I display the lists on a white board so everyone can see the differences. Though the exercise sometimes takes up to 30 minutes, it is well worth the time to prove a point. I have done this exercise over a hundred times with cadets, officers of all ranks, non-commissioned officers of all ranks (even at the Sergeants Major Academy), police officers, law students, graduate students and business managers. The students’ lists almost never contain duplicate words, with answers as variegated as “discipline,” “marksmanship,” “wearing the uniform,” and even “drill and ceremony.”

Okay, if we cannot define what the “basics” are, then surely we can at least tell how the Army is going to implement the doctrine of Mission Command. Or, can we?

At the May 2012 TRADOC-sponsored “Learning for 2015” Conference, confusion reigned on how to develop leaders and Soldiers for Mission Command. The audience asked several senior leaders how TRADOC and the institutional Army would practice Mission Command. The responses ranged from, “I will refer this to others to answer,” to “We cannot have seven different courses doing seven different things; we must standardize.” The audience then asked, “Why does it matter as long as your outcome for that course is met, and they operate under the resource parameters you put them under?” Other senior leaders answered, “We will bring in commanders that are good at it [Mission Command] from the operational Army to be in charge of our Centers of Excellence.” Finally, the current TRADOC Commander, General Perkins, talked about Mission Command when he was the Commander at the Combined Arms Center (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth. General Perkins stated, “To conduct Mission Command, we have to know how to educate for Mission Command,” and “we [TRADOC] don’t even have a POI [Program of Instruction] on how to teach it.”[1]

Thus, Mission Command is becoming, as it became in the 1980s, a method of orders and control rather than a cultural philosophy that can greatly enhance a leader’s ability to make rapid and sound decisions without waiting for permission. Additionally, examinations of the recently released Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-0 and Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-0—both titled Mission Command and both released in May 2012—reveal no “how to” in implementing Mission Command, no use of case studies, no examples of good and bad command cultures. Instead, the doctrinal manuals are filled with theories, philosophies and charts on how the U.S. Army interprets Mission Command. No one at any level of the Army has conducted the difficult analysis of how Mission Command would be implemented across the operational and, more important, the institutional or generating forces. Implementing Mission Command as a powerful combat multiplier must begin at the top and filter down by example to all ranks, military as well as civilian.

Yet, there is hope. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs (CJCS) General Martin E. Dempsey’s April 2012 “Mission Command: A White Paper” expresses the need to train and educate officers to operate under Mission Command on two pages of a seven-page document, which is more than any other official Army or Department of Defense document has said on the subject since Mission Command was introduced in the 1982 U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5, Operations. Yet, as a high-level document should, the CJCS paper provides a well-versed concept without going into great detail on how subordinates should meet the intent of preparing leaders to operate in Mission Command. For the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense to effectively implement Mission Command, the drive must come from the top-down and the bottom-up. General Dempsey’s paper is a good start for the top-down implementation of the concept, at least in how the Army develops leaders to succeed in Mission Command.

Lieutenant General David G. Perkins (left), commander, Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and retired Lt. Gen. Don Holder, a military consultant, discuss the role of leadership and education in mission command during the Mission Command Symposium in Kansas City, Mo., Jun 18.

Mission Command is not just a method of control; it is also a cultural philosophy that demands the highest in professionalism and trust. The way the institutional Army practices, through top-down control, endless regulations and inspections focused on inputs rather than outcomes contrasts with what leaders need to practice Mission Command. Mission Command requires leaders be rigorously selected and highly competent, with the Strength of Character to stand by their decisions regardless of the career consequences. The leaders who succeed under a culture of Mission Command seek responsibility and take pride in making difficult decisions. Unfortunately, today’s personnel system does not focus on delivering the type of leader Mission Command needs to succeed. But until someone mitigates this leviathan challenge, the Army and Marines can start with a small victory in how they educate and train their personnel-called Development.

The basics begin with problem solving, which requires strength of character to make hard decisions under difficult circumstances, and likely when no one is watching. The evolution of this bedrock ability underwrites all other development.

What are the Basics?

Order and control are central to Programs of Instruction (POIs) that use the “Competency Theory” as their foundations (Competency Theory of education is a derivative of the theories of late 19th Century Management Expert and founder of Scientific Management, Frederick Taylor; it is the foundation today for the educational methodology defined as “leave no child behind”). This is a cultural theme the Army has a hard time departing from and one which will likely defeat the merits of implementing methodologies that support the latest in learning theory. Competency Theory cannot fail in the true sense of the word because it does not actually work to begin with; history and the latest in learning science confirm its shortcomings. Rather, egos (“not invented here” syndrome) that dominate the Army will defeat emerging ideas like Outcome Based Training and Education (OBT&E) and its teaching methodologies of Combat Application Training Course (CATC) and the Adaptive Course Methodology (ACM), taking comfortable bureaucrats out of their comfort zones and sparking a fight for jobs tied to the current institution.

The Army must base leader development for Mission Command on quality, not quantity, at every grade level. The rule should be, “Better no officer [leader] than a bad officer [leader].”[2] Schools must constantly put students in difficult, unexpected situations, and then require them to decide and act under time pressure. Students must experience constant stress—mental and moral as well as physical—to yank them roughly out of their “comfort zones.” War games, tactical decision games, map exercises and free‑play field exercises must constitute the bulk of the curriculum.

Commanders must continue to develop those leaders who successfully pass through the schools to ensure the process of learning does not stop at the schoolhouse door.

Drill and ceremonies and adhering to “task, conditions and standards” (task proficiency) in the name of process are not important. Higher command levels overseeing officers’ and NCOs’ schools must look for courses adhering to a few principles, while allowing instructors to evolve their lesson plans using innovative teaching techniques and tools to an ever-changing environment. Commanders must continue to develop those leaders who successfully pass through the schools to ensure the process of learning does not stop at the schoolhouse door.

Current research—the work of Dr. Robert Bjork at UCLA—tells us the most frequent type of decision making for leaders in a time critical environment is recognitional, which requires a large amount of experience. Research also tells us that making a large number of decisions in a stressed environment solidifies competence in decision-making. Leaders must understand that deciding when and how to close with an enemy may be the least important decision they make on an asymmetric battlefield. Instead, actions that build and nurture positive relationships with a community, local leaders and children may be the defining factors for success, as well as the primary tools that contain an insurgency, build a nation or stop genocide. True tactical prowess often entails co-opting the local population’s will while shattering the cohesion of asymmetric adversaries.

Educating a future military leader in “how to think” (cognitive skills) takes longer and is far more expensive than using industrially-based task training, which requires resources like weapons, ranges, equipment, and special facilities that require training be done at established locations, requiring centralization. The good news is Dr. Bjork has debunked theories about learning through his recent studies. The focus on process, training for the test and task proficiency benefits short-term training but does not promote long-term learning. The translation for Army education is that task training can be done anytime in an officer’s development, but the longer you wait to develop cognitive skills, the harder it becomes.

The following two statements sum up Bjork’s work as it relates to evolving the current task-centric and process-centric approach to Army education:

  • “Conditions of instruction that rapidly improve performance often fail to support long-term retention and transfer,


  • Conditions of instruction that appear to create difficulties for the learner, slowing the rate of apparent learning, often optimize long-term retention and transfer.”[2]

The basics begin with teaching people how to frame and solve problems. All learning grows from there. Instructors train all skills in the context of a problem. Learning evolves from that concept.

Members of the leadership and staff of the New York Army National Guard’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team review the operations plan of the brigade during the unit combined arms rehearsal at Fort Irwin, Calif., Oct. 5, 2011.

Outcomes-Based Training and Education (OBT&E) best supports Mission Command principles in that it operates on outcomes while subordinates select the appropriate way to achieve those outcomes.

Results show adaptive and innovative Soldiers and leaders who continually engage in problem solving and learning have proven abilities to make timely decisions under stress. In this case, TRADOC/the Combined Arms Center (CAC) would define the outcomes and resource parameters for each Center of Excellence (CoE) for the operational Army, and allow the CoEs and their subordinates to figure it out.

Current Army learning methods teach Soldiers and leaders how to apply approved, doctrinal solutions to specific tasks, whereas OBT&E teaches them how to frame and solve problems, focusing on the results rather than the methods.

OBT&E seeks to shift leader training from a traditional construct that focuses on teaching doctrinally approved solutions to one that equips leaders with solid fundamental skills and builds expertise in critical thinking and problem solving.

OBT&E is designed to develop leaders and organizations adept at framing complex, ill-defined problems and making effective decisions under stressful conditions with less than perfect information. From the instructor perspective, it seeks to encourage the trainer to facilitate rather than present, to coach rather than direct, to develop rather than instruct.

OBT&E differs in that it focuses on the outcomes, not specific tasks, and the skills necessary for the Soldier and leader to accomplish the mission. OBT&E places more emphasis on small-unit (down to squad level) leadership, a much more varied operational environment and availability of much more situational information. These factors also extend the requirement for critical and adaptive thinking down to lower levels. As a result, our institutions will not only educate, but will also train at the small unit level.

OBT&E represents an evolution of decades of experience in planning and executing “good training” and reflects bottom-up refinement and application of best training and education practices within the Army. OBT&E improves instructor and faculty quality and focuses assessments on learning outcomes. It relies on the credibility and influence of experienced instructors and trainers who are accountable for instructional strategies and integral to assessment of outcomes achievement, rather than enforcement of external controls and processes. OBT&E is “learner centric” and requires an increased view of importance on developing and rewarding quality instructors.

How can the U.S. Army revolutionize its leader development in order for its leaders to grasp and perform under a culture that embodies Mission Command?

We can best describe OBT&E as “developmental learning”—development occurs while training a military task. OBT&E and Outcomes-Based Learning are the intersections of training and education. The Outcomes-Based Instruction Model outlines the three elements of an outcome: Tangibles, Intangibles and Context. Each element provides an essential component to the training and education to maximize the overall impact the Soldier and leader will have on their unit due to their training experience. The Outcomes-Based Instruction Model provides an approach to leader development that employs “context-based, collaborative, problem-centered instruction” to ensure development of 21st century leader competencies.[3]

Developing People for Mission Command

Can the U.S. Army integrate the latest in command and control technology with the recurring concept of Mission Command while freeing itself from its legacy of over-control? How can the U.S. Army revolutionize its leader development in order for its leaders to grasp and perform under a culture that embodies Mission Command? We can answer the first question by answering the second question through a revolution in professional military education.

First, the U.S. must decentralize its personnel system (another subject to be discussed in a future article). Yet, as we wait for this miracle to happen, aside from mission accomplishment, Leader development must become the premier mission of leaders of all ranks in the U.S. Army (beyond mere “bumper stickers”). Army leaders must strenuously select and develop Officers and NCOs through what can become one of the finest professional education programs in the world. Intensive professional education should come first in a leader’s career, beginning when they are a new cadet or young Soldier. The earlier the Army introduces leaders and Soldiers to Mission Command, the earlier they will be able to grow into it and understand the traits and skills needed to succeed in it. This is an evolutionary process that takes time incorporating experience, self-development and professional education. The focus here is on professional education.

All officers should share the experience of serving in the enlisted ranks for a minimum of two years. (Photo by SFC Jason Stadel)

Making all officer cadets serve in the ranks will benefit the Army in several ways:

  • Officers who have served in the ranks will develop greater respect for those who serve below them, building more trust.
  • It will eliminate the tradition of lieutenants entering active service as the most inexperienced members of units.
  • It will provide cadets and officer candidates with a foundation in Army traditions, discipline, skills and tasks, allowing ROTC cadre to go beyond basic Soldier skills and focus more on developing adaptability (keep in mind that basic training as we know it will also change using OBT&E-all skills training in the context of a problem).

A board of officers composed of both active and Reserve officers and a Joint Forces Command (JFC) staff member will access potential officers at the regimental level after their service in the ranks. The board will look at periodic examinations, performance evaluations by the chain of command and the recommendations of battalion commanders. Those selected for commissioning would then attend a university or the USMA and become officers by the time they were twenty-five. A smaller officer corps would also allow the Army to return some of its savings to investing in its future officers by paying for their education. This will allow the cadet to focus on becoming an officer instead of having to worry about paying for school and meeting the demands of the military professional.

All cadets would receive scholarships that cover tuition, room and board and include a stipend to help defray the costs of books, study materials, uniforms and a personal computer system that includes a monitor, printer and scanner. With all their educational and living expenses met, cadets would be able to focus on becoming effective officers. Soldiers who entered the enlisted ranks with a degree would still serve a minimum of two years in a unit, be selected by Regimental commissioning board, and then compete with others on the extensive professional entrance exam after completing a JFC officer candidate school. Upon passing the first of two comprehensive professional exams (the second one comes after their first four years as an officer, and would be branch specific), the candidate would then be commissioned, and the Army would compensate the new officer for the prior costs of demonstrable college loans his or her education.

With the exception of the military academies, military education and training does not place much stress on the cadets to test strength of character.

Before candidates take the comprehensive exam to become commissioned officers, ROTC should expend time and resources to prepare them for it. . In today’s ROTC programs, which are modeled on assembly-line methods based on the army’s needs at the beginning of World War II, officers and their cadres have four to six hours a week in a school year of nine months, a two- to three-day field training exercise per semester (two per year) and a thirty-two-day “Advanced Camp” (Leader Development Assessment Course or LDAC) in the summer between the students’ junior and senior years to educate and train. With the exception of the military academies, military education and training does not place much stress on the cadets to test strength of character. Fortunately, Army ROTC is currently adding the OBT&E and ACM approaches to its POI for both the academic year and summer cadet development.

Cadet education and training can incorporate innovative and interesting approaches which, when coupled with the experience gained from serving as an enlisted soldier in the battalion, build strength of character and make every officer a combat leader first. Cadet education needs to emphasize how to frame and solve problems early on. It should emphasize a holistic approach to solving tactical problems. Cadre will teach cadets to conceptualize a solution before they prepare an operations order. During classroom and outdoor instruction, the process will make extensive use of tactical decision games (TDGs), placing the cadets in a tactical scenario and requiring them to devise a solution. From the classroom, cadets can take the TDGs outside and walk through a particular environment while receiving reports from other cadets. The cadets will then need to make decisions based on the intelligence picture presented and to accomplish a given mission. These exercises will incorporate historical scenarios. At this point, cadets will be prepared to progress into field training. The difference from the earlier criticism of LDAC or Advance Camp is these remain free play force on force exercises, where the criteria is timeliness of a decision and how the cadet justifies their decision in their own words.

All training should revolve around free-play force-on-force exercises followed by an extensive after-action review. Currently, leadership training in the field involves the use “canned” situational tactical exercises (STX) lanes. The STX lane allows the cadet to follow a checklist and apply a formula to accomplish a task against a weak or non-thinking enemy. The checklist approach is also easier on cadre. Free-play, force-on-force exercises—from a squad on up to a company level, depending on the size of the program—pit cadets against other cadets who are thinking opponents who want to outwit them (team competition-healthy).

Cpl. William Schuler, with Black Sea Rotational Force 13, moves to his ambush position during a live-fire ambush exercise in Balta Verde Training Area, Craiova, Romania, March 14, 2013. (USMC photo by 1st Lt. Hector R. Alejandro Jr.)

A force-on-force exercise is one place where competition should be allowed to flourish, with clear winners and losers. This approach forces leaders to be creative. Each evaluator must know their profession and be able to judge holistically, beyond “checking the box.” Continual small-unit missions allow the cadre to evaluate cadets on the ability to adapt to stress while still making effective decisions and force cadets to learn the details and the necessity of knowing individual tasks. The examinations are used to determine progress through the program, as well as a final examination (one of two) to determine entry into the officer corps.

Examinations will provide an objective evaluation tool. In the beginning, they will consist of simple TDGs at the squad or platoon level lasting less than an hour. Examinations taken by cadets during their time in ROTC or at the academy will also prepare them for their first professional examination to enter the profession. The larger examination such as the one to enter the professional officer corps will last several days and consist of writing papers on tactics and evaluated on individual tasks covering weapons and military equipment, as well on the foreign language taken by the cadet during school. The more difficult part of the first professional examination will be TDGs requiring cadets to solve problems and write orders at battalion and brigade levels under time constraints demonstrating a holistic view of their role in the context of a larger unit environment (it is not that they are going to be evaluated on the ability to doctrinally give a correct answer, but the ability to solve a complex problems in their own words based on their education and experience at that moment). One of the standards on the exam should be that cadets have to explain their orders in as concise of a manner as possible, regardless of the format. To ensure objectivity, boards of anonymous officers drawn from different regiments within a respective Joint Forces Command will grade final examinations.

Examinations based on a problem solving scenario restore trust because all cadets must pass the same challenges to become officers. They also place an additional hurdle to lesser-educated officers, thereby making the officer corps more professional. While participating in officer accession programs, all cadets will enter an intensive study program that further enhances professionalism. Instead of officers with the best files being selected for the joint staff, examinations will allow the entire officer corps to become a pool for such selection. Finally, these examinations will eliminate reliance on the OER system and its dependence on the rater/senior rater dynamic, or necessity to “please the boss”.

By making the first cut early in an officer’s career, using objective measures, and determining core values, the new accessions, promotion and selection system will “restore trust in our officer corps and destroy the cult of micromanagement like the scourge it is.” These problems are born of a culture that places the individual above the unit and fosters an unhealthy competition among brothers-in-arms for favor, resources, promotion, awards, evaluations and key jobs.

After their commissioning, officers will have less anxiety about their careers and will be able to devote more time and energy to understanding the art of war.

POI: Development of Leaders

The new promotion and assignment management system will reorient to identify, promote and assign officers who have the war-fighting qualities most needed in leading, staffing and supporting Army units. It will also identify, instead of punishing, those whose strengths lie elsewhere. By the time individuals are commissioned, they will have demonstrated where they are an asset by their service record in the battalion and their performance on a second comprehensive professional exam.

Graduating ROTC students. From left to right, Army Second Lieutenant Robert Huefner, Navy Second Lieutenant John Cancian (USMC), Ensigns Donald M. Coates, Erika E. Helbling, Patrick Morrissey, Erik Sand, Meredith Ellen Sandberg, Jonathan Sieg, Danielle Thiriot and Aaron Woodside, and Air Force Second Lieutenant Lauren L. Brown.

With a smaller officer corps, more stringent entrance requirements and an up-or-stay promotion system, the Army will commission fewer officers; some fifteen hundred a year. This will allow them to socialize with each other, thus creating bonds of trust essential in combat. After commissioning, all will attend the same six-month officer’s War fighting Decision Course (WDC) run at Army level. The focus of the WDC will be tactical decision making with some insights into the operational and strategic levels of war. There, new officers will get to know one another while they continue to learn application of military history, attend classes on tactical and operational art, conduct free-play force-on-force war games—both with the aid of simulations and in the field—and learn various officer specialties. Cadre will apply the ACM methodology throughout the course.

Army courses using ACM program of instruction (POI) expose students to classical education in conjunction with existing leadership programs on campuses where they are taught to find the answers, whereas current curriculum as described earlier gives Soldiers the answers. Instead, if the students want to find the answers for themselves, and the lessons are emotionally marked in time which builds intuition—a necessary trait of “adaptive leaders”, because they build confidence when the student takes ownership of his or her learning, guided by an outstanding teacher. This approach to leader development immerses the student in education and training with innovative teachers.

The only other formal Army course will occur as new captains enter the operational track (General Staff) of the future Army and Joint Staff. Officers who gain entrance into the operational track will be managed at Army level. At the end of their first four years of service, officers who score in the top 15-20 percent on the second exam and seek to pursue the operational track will be selected by a board.

An additional requirement for the operational track will be proficiency in a foreign language. The early and rigorous selection of officers for the operational track is designed with two objectives in mind: cull the heard of those unlikely to be GO/FOs and begin graduate education and advanced training/education for selected officers after their fourth instead of their tenth year of service.

Development of the capacity for exercising command effectively is advanced by studies ranging from history to understanding the human condition to ethics and psychology of leadership.

The second objective has seen concerned debate in the United States. Many observers contrast the amount of education needed with how much is actually received by army officers, especially when considering that the effective command of complex military units and organizations remains as much an art as a science. Development of the capacity for exercising command effectively is advanced by studies ranging from history to understanding the human condition to ethics and psychology of leadership. This capacity must manifest before the processes of decision, the capabilities of weapons, the elements alliance relationships, the thought patterns, culture and doctrine, possible opponents, and the whole gamut of professional military considerations are even broached.

This track consists of officers who will become the army’s operational and strategic experts. Their first assignment after selection to the operational track will be to attend a two-year course combining the CGSC course with the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) using OBT&E and ACM as the foundation for their POI. Upon graduation, they will earn a graduate degree in military art and science and move into the fast track. Once in the operational track, officers will be subject to different promotion criteria than those remaining in the tactical or technical arenas. As captains and majors, they will spend their time alternating between the staffs of brigades, Division, Corps, ASCC, JFCs, and the Army and National Staff.

After this second and final Army course, officers will be allowed to attend graduate school depending on their career field as well as take a sabbatical of one to two years off from the Army profession. During this sabbatical, Army officers will continue to be paid, but will be allowed to pursue other interests, travel or continue their studies.

The Foundation to Learning

The ACM is a new leader development model incorporating recent advances in the field of experiential learning. It is an answer to the call for a new leader education model to reshape a fundamental Army learning process for a dynamic operating environment.

Cadre leaders will adhere to ACM principles. These principles include:

  • Providing “contextual interference” during learning (e.g., interleavingrather than blocking practice — this means that the conditions are constantly varied at unscheduled times), most tasks become learned through doing, and are subordinate to leader development scenarios, taught as needed and as part of varying the conditions of learning.[4]
  • “Experience the thing before they try to give it a name.”[5]
  • Conduct scenarios three levels higher to understand their (units’) role in the bigger picture through use of tactical decision games (TDGs).
  • Execute free play force on force at manageable levels (w/PLT TAC acting as company commissioned officer), with missions used as vehicles to develop leadership adaptability.
  • Distributing or spacing study or practice sessions (provide the opportunity and access to find answers).
  • Reducing feedback to the learner, forcing the student to find the answer (less telling them the answer).
  • Using observations and evaluations through conduct of scenarios (rather than presentations) as learning events.

Their feedback and that of students and others reflects the positive impact this cultural change has on our Army’s future leaders. Of significant note is that this “change” has required no additional resources or a lengthening in the total period of instruction. While the ACM takes advantage of our current combat veterans’ insights and experiences, it requires their continued initiative and desire to train and help grow future leaders. The ACM does this because it continues to build on the Army core principles and values. The warrior ethos underpins everything in the ACM, while the ACM adapts our Army’s leaders to the current and future operating environment.

ACM is a cultural change rather than a specific set list of exercises. ACM develops adaptability through the Rapid Decision Marking (RDM) process using the experiential learning model through scenario-based learning. ACM is a system that promotes self-actualized learning via weakly structured situational problems. Additionally, ACM parallels the latest findings of the academic world in leader and cognitive development. The ACM program of instruction (POI) employs techniques that are “desirable difficulties” as pointed out by Dr. Robert Bjork in his keynote presentation at the TRADOC hosted “Science of Learning Workshop” August 1, 2006. ACM espouses institutionalized inductive reasoning in order to prepare leaders for the complex wars of the future.

At a course using ACM, students are quickly thrown into problem solving exercises that would be viewed in the past as “too complicated for them without first learning the basics (from a classroom lecture).” They then review the results of their actions in an after action review (AAR) in which the instructors facilitate the students in finding their answers. The instructors avoid telling the students how to do it — there are no book solutions — but guide the students toward workable solutions they already discovered in experimenting during the course of the scenario. Preferably, the instructors use force on force, free play exercises whenever possible, but in lieu of these capstone exercises, the instructors use TDGs as a tool to facilitate learning, or symposium-based case studies, before ever introducing theory or doctrine (it is desired the students discover these on their own).

Students are allowed to run as much of the course as possible. If it is rifle qualification that is required as part of the course curriculum to meet Army regulations, instead of using the Industrial Age method, students not only learn how to shoot, but since ALM is now the POI of a leader-centric course, they also learn by running the range. These approaches do not alleviate the cadre of the responsibilities of teaching and ensuring the safety of the students; and as a matter of fact, the approach called for in the POI is more difficult because the instructors must stand back and let the students learn through doing, but also know when to step in to keep students on course without wasting too much time as some student leaders will flounder in trying to lead and solve the problem.

The ACM holds to the idea that every moment and event offers an opportunity to develop adaptability. Every action taken by a student in the classroom or in field training is important to the process of inculcating a preference for new solutions. If students err while acting in good faith, they do not suffer anything more than corrective coaching. Constructive critiques of solutions are the norm, but more important are the results of actions, and the reasons for those actions. Coaching and 360-degree assessment is to develop students so their future actions will make a positive contribution to their units’ successes, no matter what the mission. This idea is based on the premise that one learns more from a well-meaning mistake reviewed critically and constructively than from applying an established and memorized process.

ACM teachers will be very concerned with why the students do what they do—an action-learning approach. The emphasis of the course will be on ensuring that the students gain and maintain a willingness to act. During numerous AARs and mentoring sessions—occurring during and after numerous scenarios with different conditions—the teacher will analyze why the students acted as they did and the effect the action had on the overall operation.

The ACM curriculum and leader evaluation system will use two criteria to judge whether students did well: the timeliness of their decisions and their justification for actions taken. The first criterion will impress on students the need to act within situationally-appropriate time constraints, while the second requires students to reflect on their actions and gain insights into their own thought processes. Since students must justify their decision in their own mind before implementing it, imprudent decisions and reckless actions will be less likely.

During the course, student decisions in terms of a “school solution” will be unimportant. The emphasis will be on the effect of the students’ actions, not on the method they may have chosen. At this point of time, the focus is on individual decision-making development. The concept of the battle drill is still valid (at tool to enhance a decision and make it more decisive). As TDGs grow in complexity, the cadet learns the concept of the battle drill, where each member of a specific responsibility or role, that can be drilled or trained. This encourages a learning environment in which there will be few formulas or processes to achieve optimum solutions. This environment will solicit creative solutions.

The learning evaluation system in the ACM is based on the philosophy that feedback should be given in a way that encourages a willingness to act and then reflect on actions in a manner that maximizes learning. Unconstructive critiques destroy the student leader’s willingness to act and can lead to withholding of adverse information or false reporting. The course will avoid formulaic solutions and provide room for innovative solutions in its POI (the course will be able to continually evolve). This begins at the entry level to achieve transformation over a generation of leaders, teaching new dogs new tricks.

What Next?

"Most Army schools open with the standard bromide: ‘We are not going to teach you what to think … we are going to teach you how to think.’ They rarely do. Critical thinking is both art and science. There are techniques to critical thinking, such as careful application of logic, or alternative application of deduction and induction. These techniques can be taught and learned. "— Brig. Gen. David Fastabend and Robert Simpson, “Adapt or Die”

Superior (innovative) military development (education and training) will be critically important to the institutionalization of Mission Command through the correct way to develop adaptability, which will assist with recruiting and retaining good soldiers in the Army. Not only will the Army need to produce leaders who possess adaptability, but the institutions tasked to develop leaders will need to become adaptive as well—to evolve as the future operating environment evolves. OBT&E and ACM applied already at Army courses such as the Army Reconnaissance Course (ARC) at Fort Benning, GA as well as the Department of Military Instruction (DMI) at the United States Military Academy are changing the training culture. They are examples that provide principles that allow implementation of central ideas that are adverse to the current and old ways of developing leaders. These must change in order to enable Mission Command.

The Army’s cultivation of Mission Command through the development of adaptability requires a vast effort—from the top down as well as bottom-up. It is so central to the future of the Army that it applies to squad leaders as well as to the joint-force commander. The leaders of the future Army should have to make a truly gross error to create a negative blotch on their careers. Evaluations and performance reviews cannot continue to haunt adaptive leaders throughout their careers if they have only made an honest mistake.

Moving the Army toward a learning organization structure as Colonel Haskins did with the 198th Infantry Brigade at Fort Benning, GA from 2006 to 2008 and then later when he was Director of DMI at USMA provides examples that effective changes can take place to the current linear culture. The 198th Infantry Brigade, ARC and DMI became adaptive institutions with adaptive leaders. They bring the collective creativity of the Army to bear in solving problems at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war.

As Mission Command becomes truly institutionalized, other problems such as recruiting and training will also be aligned with it. The personnel system will also have to finally evolve to support a culture that embodies Mission Command. The culture will become one that rewards leaders and soldiers who act, and penalizes those who do not. Today’s culture needs to evolve so that the greater burden rests on all superior officers, who have to nurture—teach, trust, support and correct—the student who now enters the force with the ability to adapt from the day they are accessed until they leave the service. Otherwise, Mission Command will only remain a pipe dream, a hope from the past and meaningless words plastered all over power point presentations and one page in doctrine manuals.

Don Vandergriff is the author of Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Huge numbers of German tanks concentrate for a new attack on Soviet fortifications on July 28, 1943, during the Battle of Kursk. (AP Photo)


[1] These issues were raised as recently as the May 2012 Army Learning Conference: Army Learning Model 2015 by Combined Arms Center (CAC) commander Lieutenant General David Perkins: “We don’t even have a packet to train Mission Command.” Author’s personal notes, 1–3 May 2012, TRADOC Army Learning Conference, Army Learning Model 2015, Fort Eustis, VA.

[2] Dr. Robert Bjork, briefing to Army TRADOC, “How the Army Trains is Backwards,” 10 Aug 2006.

[3] COL Casey Haskins and Don Vandergriff, “What is OBT&E and how does it help the Army,” White Paper for TRADOC Commander, General Martin Dempsey, May 2010.

[4] Bjork, briefing to TRADOC, Aug 2006.

[5] Prussia’s military education of its officer cadets was based on an education approach developed by a Swiss educator, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi B.I. Gudmundsson, personal email communication, 10 Dec 2004.