Mission Command #Leadership and the U.S. Army


Mission command is more than a philosophy of command. It represents a culture where mutual trust and the concomitant willingness to accept prudent risk govern. It comes with an expectation that commanders respect their subordinates’ judgment and issue orders that focus on intent rather than tasks. Mission command relies on a shared understanding (of the environment and expectations) that enables every member of the team to exercise disciplined initiative.  When done well, mission command is the result of effective leadership.

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, proponent of mission command.

The idea that an agile force stems from adaptive leadership is a plain and simple, and yet upon examination the Army’s definition of leadership appears to focus more on the behaviors and competencies of authority than it does on creating the conditions for agility.

This is a troubling disconnect.  If we are serious about the call to imprint “a bias for action” into our DNA, then we need to open a conversation about what mission command leadership is and how we think about leading.[1]

The Problem with the Current Definition

The Army’s current definition says that leadership is, “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”[2]  

To be fair, there is a lot of nuance in words like process, influence, and motivation that might intimate reciprocity or mutuality.  But a continued reading of the Army doctrinal publication suggests otherwise.  It makes it quite clear that the leader has a responsibility to the follower. It is reminiscent of the industrial age where the focus of most definitions was on efficiency and control.  For the Army this meant synchronizing forces designed to best the Soviets along the Fulda gap.  It was fitting for its time.

But in the ambiguous environment of the 21st century this leader-centric model may not be conducive to adaptability, especially when the leader’s view of influence or motivation is too often narrowly defined. Putting the burden on the person we identify as leader to find the right stimuli to get the job done, where success depends largely on the authority figure’s understanding of influence, motivation, and improvement is a unidirectional 20th century concept designed for efficiency and clarity, not ambiguity.

We do not produce adaptive and agile teams by providing, as the Army definition says, anything. We produce them by building relationships and fostering trust.  To be effective at mission command, our definition should embrace self-direction and intrinsic motivation.  It should allow for mutual influence and collaboration.  

Leadership is a Wicked Problem

Borrowing from Rittel and Webber’s classic construct for problem solving, we can see that that the study of leadership is a complex and messy, even “wicked” in its complexity.[3]

Wicked problems have no commonly accepted answer, yet everyone looking is an expert.  Each expert comes at the problem from unique national, ethnic, religious, ideological, or differing personal values and interests. No one has complete knowledge of all its factors, and there is always more to know and issues to consider.  And as our understanding of the problem evolves, the perceptions and expectations change.[4]  

An editorial calling for change must therefore contend with the impossible task of representing and addressing the wide variety of arguments and opinions found in the literature, from the older trait and behavioral and contingency models, through servant, follower, and exchange models, and into the contemporary exploration of social cognition and interpretive models.  

In conversation with soldiers, you find a similar range of understanding and thought, but there are some common patterns. Most are quick to share that leadership is not a position, that authority does not confer leadership, and leadership does not require positional authority. They are correct, but seconds later and without a trace of irony they will refer to the people they work for as Army leaders, and the jobs they hold as leadership positions. Every time someone in a position of authority does something stupid and we describe it as a leadership failure, we are reinforcing the idea that leadership is in fact positional. We are our own worst enemies when we do this, no matter how innocently.

Many leadership practitioners describe what they do in behavioral terms, listing competencies or actions such as taking care of people, or acting with a calm decisiveness under fire. But for some courage can be reckless, and “taking care of people” can mean harsh discipline.  Even where we discuss toxic or ethical leadership it is not unusual to discover that one person’s ideal leader is another's toxic phony.

Some in positions of authority still define leadership as being efficient at “making things happen” by the existing rules. They use definitions like the Army’s to dismiss different as non-conformist, going against their purpose and direction.  It is a single-mindedness that presents little room for a squad or platoon leader with an entrepreneurial mind-set to act on the commander's intent and adjust the mission's task down range.[5]

"...leadership is a matter of perception and matched (or mismatched) expectations..."

All of this reveals the obvious, that leadership is a matter of perception and matched (or mismatched) expectations, and that relationships give meaning to the competencies and models. It also says that our current definition, with its unambiguous language, is far from universal or pervasive. In other words, now is a good time to wrestle with this wicked problem.

What Leadership Must Be

When people act because they have no choice (as in a task or order), or if relationships do not evolve because no party wishes to deviate from a standard set of roles, functions, or rules, then leadership is absent. It is managerial, doing our jobs by providing purpose and direction. We need to stop calling this leadership. If an officer or noncommissioned officer runs an efficient organization, it is only effective stewardship. Let us call it that.

A fair number of scholars now describe leadership in terms of mutually evolving relationships, where all parties share responsibility for shaping events.[6] With this common framework they can develop the respect and trust necessary to coalesce around and consent to a common moral purpose, unified action, and real change.

True leadership must also be evolutionary. Nathan Harter in particular noted that leadership is a continuous action always viewed in relationship to the continuous actions of every other person involved.[7] We are simply saying that the people who hold positions of authority respond to subordinates differently as they get to know each other, and vice-versa. It is continuously creating new attitudes and behaviors from old and as necessary breaking rules or ignoring the established battle rhythm, both of which act to frustrate creativity.

Mission Command Leadership

Mission command leadership, therefore, is not an act, a process, or a position.  Mission command leadership is an evolving social perception concerning authority, relationships, shared understanding, purpose, trust, risk, and environment.  In a mission command environment, ceding control to subordinates is the norm (and paradoxically the best way to gain control because soldiers take as much responsibility for the mission as you).[8]  Positions and roles exist, but people can defer to expertise.

The person we call a leader therefore must forge these relationships and foster the evolving interaction of people where trust and prudent risk prevail. They each share responsibility for the success of the mission and the vigor of the profession.  Commanders may not share authority, but for mission command to be effective, commanders must share leadership.  

Mission command leadership is then the evolving development of relationships toward shared responsibility for the mission and the health of the profession.

Critics may charge that we will create a culture that ignores the realities of maintaining readiness in a large and complex organization, or that we will become dismissive of the very rules that maintain a functioning meritocracy. They hint that this heresy will create anarchy, with subordinates free to ignore their superiors and act unilaterally. But this is nonsense. If someone were to use mission command leadership as an excuse to be undisciplined, they have created teachable moments for discussions about values, or how those in authority can develop more effective intent statements. When you treat soldiers (who you will trust in combat to do the right thing) as adults, you will earn mutual trust. When you treat everyone as suspect because a few may betray that trust, you create cynicism. Dire warnings about anarchy are simply reminders that we have a risk-averse culture.

Acknowledging that leadership is a shared responsibility may help us wrestle with the problem of toxic or unethical behaviors, both of which require complicit followers. In today’s hierarchical model, to confront toxicity is to challenge the accepted order of senior and subordinate, or to risk affecting one’s place in the hierarchy by admitting to inefficiency or unmet standards. This unidirectional approach makes it harder to lead people as it forces us to ignore people for who they are in the name of efficiency. Opening leadership up to a shared responsibility (acknowledging again that we cannot share authority, but authority is not leadership) also dampens the tendency toward toxicity. The current definition puts the burden on the person in charge to determine the standard, giving rise to self-serving views of purpose, direction, or organizational improvement.

Those of us who grew up with the old definition should not be threatened by this proposal. It does not repudiate our experience, but it is a clear signal that the leadership driving mission command is more than just new dressing on 1980s thinking. But to move forward requires that we ask whether what was once acceptable is still optimal. What the best squads, flights, platoons, and departments are practicing now should be our guide to teaching them what best practices look like, not what an older generation thought worked well twenty or more years ago and therefore should apply equally well today.

As many soldiers return to peacetime rotations and routines they must continue to see leadership as synonymous to prudent risk, shared understanding. They must make a habit of adaptation and agility and codify it in our doctrinal understanding. It frustrates the emergence of mission command when commanders in garrison label administration and efficiency as leadership, yet not allow a squad leader to develop her own training plans. If we are striving for a culture of adaptability, toward the former Chairman’s intent to imprint a bias for action into our DNA, this distinction matters.[9]


Thomas Williams is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a member of the Department of Distance Education faculty at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When not in uniform, he teaches part-time at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut and at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Massachusetts.  The views expressed are his own and do not reflect any official position of the Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] General Martin Dempsey, Mission Command White Paper (Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington DC, 2012), 6.

[2] U.S. Department of the Army, Army Leadership, Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 6-22 (Washington DC: U.S. Department of the Army, 1 August 2012), 1-1.

[3] Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 155–169.

[4] For background on wicked problems and leadership, Robert Yawson, “The ‘wicked problem construct’ for organisational (sic) leadership and development” International Journal for Business and Systems Research 9, no. 1 (2015): 67-85.

[5] The most recent CASAL report shows mixed results, but only 60 percent of Junior-level leaders are satisfied with the latitude they’ve been given, and the ratings for empowerment and innovation are unfavorable, hovering around 20 percent.  The numbers for disciplined initiative (particularly in TOE units) are also low, falling below two-thirds.  For the full CASAL report, see: Ryan P. Riley et al, 2014 Center for Army Leadership Annual Survey of Army Leadership (CASAL): Military Leader Findings (Center for Army Leadership, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2015)

[6] For a comprehensive look at leadership as a relationship, see Joseph C. Rost, Leadership For the Twenty-First Century (Kindle e-book. New York: Praeger, 1993).

[7] Nathan Harter, Clearings in the Forest: On the Study of Leadership. (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2008).

[8] For some background on intrinsic motivation and why it matters in complex work environments, see Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Kindle e-book. New York: Penguin Group, 2011).

[9] General Martin Dempsey, Mission Command White Paper (Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington DC, 2012), 6.