#Leadership and the Art of Restraint

Auftragstaktik versus Helicopter Leadership

‘I spend a great deal of time imprisoned in my office, captive to the demands of Canberra. As much as possible I shield the unit commanders in Afghanistan from the deadening touch of Defence bureaucrats and political wrangling, but not always successfully. I tear my hair out in frustration when I am second-guessed, undermined or contradicted by staff officers half a world away; sometimes I get actual help. I have a bit of a blue with my boss, a turf war; we patch it up and get on with it’. - Major General John Cantwell (Retired, Australian Army)[1]


Major General Cantwell’s words articulate the frustration of having to justify actions at the tactical level to those far removed from the area of operations. There are certainly important reasons for having to do this, such as the need to update higher levels of command with the progress of operations, and to explain why certain incidents have occurred. Indeed, accountability for decisions made and actions taken is an enduring feature of civil-military relations in democratic nations.

The accessibility and ubiquity of communications technology in modern times has been a boon for military forces by enabling greater cross-domain connectivity and coordination between sea, land, and air forces, and also across coalitions. However, this increased connectivity has often tempted higher commands to exert interference with the details of war. Just as ‘helicopter parenting’ can stifle a child’s independence, learning, and growth ‘helicopter leadership’ can undermine a subordinate commander’s confidence and innovation. At worst, it can distract subordinate units from planning and conducting operations to achieve the mission, caused by the need to invest staff time to answer seemingly inane questions from officers far from the fight and devoid of detailed understanding of operational context.

Just as ‘helicopter parenting’ can stifle a child’s independence, learning, and growth ‘helicopter leadership’ can undermine a subordinate commander’s confidence and innovation.

Success in warfare will continue to rely on communications technology to enable coordination of effective fires and the manoeuvre of forces across different operational domains. The challenge is for higher commanders to exercise restraint by avoiding the use of this technology to unduly interfere in the operational details. The temptation to interfere can be mitigated by reinvigorating mission command principles, focusing on professionalism, and investing in human relationships.

Auftragstaktik Revisited

Sonnenberger’s paper on the importance of initiative to the effective implementation of the philosophy of auftragstaktik (called ‘mission command’ in contemporary command and control doctrine) explains the origins of the concept:

Auftragstaktik originated from an acceptance of the idea of decentralized execution based upon the mindset that commanders and soldiers who cannot be directly controlled have to act independently within their superior’s intent.[2]

The very concept of centralized command and decentralized execution is consistent with modern military forces that have the ability to project forces regionally and globally. ‘Commander’s Intent’ embodies the former and is a common feature of planning for operations and is found in operational orders. It is a means of expressing the Commander’s broad concepts and desired end state, with the details of the method for achieving this intent left to lower echelons and subject matter experts, embodying the latter. The concept is bounded by the overall mission to be achieved, so there are some limits to the exercise of initiative.

Lieutenant-General Michel Gautier, commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM), receives a briefing at Forward Operations Base (FOB) Masum Gar in Afghanistan, 14 March 2008.

Lieutenant-General Michel Gautier, commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM), receives a briefing at Forward Operations Base (FOB) Masum Gar in Afghanistan, 14 March 2008.

Mission command is essential because of von Moltke’s axiom that no plan survives contact.[3] When subordinates are allowed to exercise initiative, they are able to adapt to the needs of the operational environment they have been dealt, not the environment they planned for. This enables them to formulate a more rapid and decisive response without having to wait for higher command to issue orders.

While the concept of mission command is attractive on paper, there is one complicating factor: humans. In the Napoleonic era, when the concept was first articulated by the Prussians for the military forces of their time, higher commanders had no choice but to trust their subordinates to act within their intent as there were very little means to monitor subordinates in detail.[4] By contrast, contemporary military operations are punctuated by increased oversight enabled by communications technology. Commanders have the ability to reach down to the ‘weeds’ and take control of the minutiae of war, which tends to undermine the effectiveness of leadership throughout the command chain. Restraint from the lure of technology as a means of micromanaging lower command elements can be mitigated by respecting the professionalism of lower commanders and building relationships of trust.

Professionalism and Trust

Generally, the creation of a continuum of military education – from initial training to command and staff colleges – coupled with the inculcation of codes of conduct has created professional military forces. Major military forces conduct training exercises to test existing capability and doctrine. Members of the profession of arms generally develop the ability to operate in more complex environments through experiential learning, mentoring, and leadership. The key point here is that these experiences, formal education, and training processes create the members of the profession of arms who are generally competent at undertaking the duties and responsibilities of their role.

However, an understanding that subordinate commanders are professional and capable is only half the story. The other half relies on the establishment of relationships of trust throughout the command chain. These relationships can be established via a number of means, including conducting mission rehearsal exercises prior to deploying a force, which provides the deploying unit with an opportunity to bond as a team for a specific operational deployment. This enables commanders to work through complex problems and establish the human connections that are vital prerequisites to trusting relationships. As Sonnenberger points out in his paper, mission command is dependent on both professionalism and trust, which also contribute significantly to mitigating against the use of the so-called ‘1000 mile screwdriver’ by higher command.


‘Everyone hates their higher headquarters’ is an axiom within the military profession, borne out of the shared experience of commanders reaching down to the tactical level. It does not need to be this way. While higher commanders have a myriad of communications technologies at their disposal to coordinate military operations, this technology should not be used to intervene unnecessarily in the realm of subordinate commanders, specifically in situations where personal preferences may differ rather than for any other reason related to operational requirements.

Subordinate commanders are not likely to appreciate the higher command second-guessing their plans or critiquing their decisions. ‘Helicopter leadership’ is likely to create a negative command climate and sour relationships throughout the command chain. Wasting time on dealing with bad relationships between commanders distracts from the fight. The ability of higher command to restrain from interfering with subordinate commanders can be mitigated by a revitalisation of the concepts of mission command, relying on the competence of subordinate commanders, and building strong relationships of trust throughout the command chain.

Jo Brick is an Australian military officer who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild, and is currently writing a thesis on Australian civil-military relations. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Australian Defence Force.

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[1] John Cantwell. Exit Wounds (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press), 2013.

[2] Martin Sonnenberger. ‘Initiative within the Philosophy of Auftragstaktik: Determining Factors of Understanding the Initiative in the German Army 1806-1955’. Art of War Papers (US Army Command and General Staff College Press: Fort Leavenworth), 2013.

[3] The original quote is: ‘Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force’ from Daniel J. Hughes (ed). Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings (Toronto: Presidio Press) 1993.

[4] Sonnenberger, 2013.

Further Reading:

Serrat, Oliver. ‘The Travails of Micromanagement’, Knowledge Solutions (Asia Development Bank), March 2011 (accessed 03 February 2016) https://openaccess.adb.org/bitstream/handle/11540/521/travails-micromanagement.pdf?sequence=1