New lieutenants don’t arrive at their first unit fully knowing how to use initiative within the intent of higher commanders. I certainly did not. The same is true for newly promoted sergeants. Without doubt, the Army’s pre-commissioning and professional military education programs provide some insight, but the real learning happens in units. The primary teachers, therefore, are battalion commanders and command sergeants major.
The Army’s School for Command Preparation may provide command teams some tools to help exercise their Mission Command teaching responsibilities, but I’d like to share four methods of teaching Mission Command—all gleaned from watching many great battalion command teams. Three of the suggestions focus on how to use the Army’s training doctrine to teach Mission Command; the fourth suggests ways to apply the Mission Command approach to routine garrison operations.
1. Maximize the planning and preparation phases of training. With respect to teaching Mission Command, the most important element of the planning phase is the clear identification of which unit and leader tasks are to be trained during a specific training event. A generic label like “platoon training” will not do. The battalion commander must insist upon identifying a platoon-level task or tasks—for example, movement to contact or raid, or perimeter defense. Only this level of specificity allows proper development of an evaluation plan and adequate identification of the right conditions that must be created so the task can be performed to standard.
Once tasks are identified, the commander and command sergeant major must ensure that the platoon leaders and platoon NCOs know how to execute the tasks to standard. Good command teams don’t assume proficiency. Rather, they conduct in-unit officer and NCO professional development sessions to ensure subordinate leaders know what right looks like. A good practice is for the battalion commanders to personally teach their lieutenants. If the commander prefers to use company commanders to do the teaching, then there is an added session required to make sure the company commanders know what they’re talking about. The command sergeant major should teach platoon sergeants and make sure that company first sergeants teach squad leaders.
Such teaching can be done in a classroom, on a sand table or as a terrain walk without troops. This methodology reinforces the “two levels down” approach necessary for proper Mission Command. Subordinate leaders will learn not just how to execute to standard, but also—and perhaps most importantly—how the battalion commander and command sergeant major think about leadership at their level, as well as how the platoon level fits in.
The preparation phase also includes walking the terrain on which the training will take place. The terrain walk has two purposes: First, the command team identifies what must be done to prepare the land ahead of training and what opposing forces are necessary to make sure the training unit is properly challenged.
Second, the command team must identify any training aids or equipment that must be in place, again to ensure the conditions of training elicit performance to standard. Conditions matter, and setting the right conditions requires time and leader attention. The terrain walk usually includes the battalion operations officer, who is the person responsible for coordinating training support.
A third form of preparation may include leader-team training, a methodology that trains groups of leaders as a team. It’s designed to teach subordinate leaders to think and act one and two levels up in order to increase the probability that they will use initiative correctly, within the senior commander’s intent.
2. Use situational training exercises (STXs) to achieve multiple aims. The battalion command teams from which I learned the most are ones that understand that STXs have more than one purpose. At the base level, STXs can set the conditions for rote learning. That is for units, leaders and soldiers to practice repetitively their unit standard operating procedures. Once this base level is achieved, however, the level of difficulty can, and should, be increased. For example, the command team can insert more enemy to engage—with or without the training unit’s knowledge; the command team can provide less or misleading information about the enemy’s size, location, disposition or arms; it can disrupt communications between the platoon leader and higher headquarters at the most inopportune times; or it can “kill off” key leaders at critical times in the training. These kinds of STX conditions teach leader judgment, not just rote execution of standard operating procedures. Additionally, they help platoon leaders and platoon sergeants learn how to use initiative within the intent of their company and their battalion commanders.
Judgment STXs are key to effective unit and leader learning. In some respects, the Army’s combat training centers are giant judgment STXs designed to develop not only unit task proficiency but also leaders’ judgment proficiency. Battalion command teams must strive to set combat training center-like conditions routinely in home-station training. I’ve seen many command teams set up realistic training, including multiple STXs with increasingly difficult conditions, all without the high cost of combat training center-like instrumentation or the high personnel costs of external observers.
3. Ensure training is evaluated and repeated if units or leaders don’t meet performance standards. All training—unit, leader and soldier—must be evaluated. Proper evaluation starts in the planning phase, with identification of tasks and preparation of a training-and-evaluation outline that must be in platoon leaders’ pockets, both officers and NCOs.
Leaders often think of evaluation as external and formal, like at the combat training centers. But at home station, the best battalion command teams I’ve witnessed use internal/informal evaluations to maximum benefit. Internal—the unit chain of command evaluates itself; informal—the unit conducts its own after-action reviews with its pre-identified training and evaluation outline.
Using this methodology serves two purposes simultaneously.
First, it forces the unit chain of command to study and understand the standards that the unit, its leaders and its soldiers must meet. That in itself is powerful, for in combat, external evaluators don’t usually exist. Second, it places responsibility for performing to standard at the lowest levels. It allows the platoon chain of command to feel the weight of responsibility for performing to standard. This feeling produces a habit in units that produces multiple other benefits. Of course, the senior trainers—battalion commanders and command sergeants major, perhaps even the battalion executive and operations officers, as well as company commanders and first sergeants—also play their roles. But the internal/informal evaluation methodology is the primary one used in combat; it should be, therefore, the primary one used in training.
4. Decentralize how the battalion is managed. Teaching Mission Command through proper use of Army training doctrine takes place within the larger context of the way the battalion operates. The best battalion command teams don’t operate decentralized while training in the field, but centralized in garrison. That kind of bifurcated action is not only confusing to subordinates, it is counterproductive.
Garrison operations must foster a Mission Command climate. The successful battalion command teams I’ve witnessed are those that fostered a “big four” approach to action. This is the first way a command team can use garrison operations to foster a Mission Command climate. That is, the battalion executive officer, operations officer and command sergeant major could speak for the battalion commander on any subject. The commander was not a “lone ranger” from whom all things derived. Certainly, the commander remained responsible for all the unit did or did not do, but great commanders exercise that responsibility through the battalion’s other senior leaders.
Second, most of those judged as great battalion commanders did not attend every commander and staff meeting. In fact, some attended no staff meetings. Instead, they placed the responsibility of running the staff on the executive officer and relied on that officer for staff updates. Neither did these commanders run the training support meetings or the battalion maintenance meetings. That was the responsibility of the operations and executive officers, respectively. Of course, the commander had regular updates so they could act as one, and the commander could keep abreast of their unit. But delegating that responsibility not only freed up a good bit of time for the commander, it also was a means to use routine garrison activities to foster a Mission Command climate.
Make the Time
Teaching Mission Command is a full-time job. When I’ve talked to battalion commanders about these observations—whether during a quarterly training brief or a unit visit—the most common response went like this: “Sir, great, but I don’t have enough time to do all that.” My response usually was, “Well, we have all the time there is. It’s a matter of how we prioritize its use.” If a battalion command team wants to foster a Mission Command climate, they must act consistently with that goal. This means divesting some of the things that take up a command team’s time to other leaders in the unit and using the freed-up time to teach Mission Command. I’ve seen multiple command teams do it. You can, too.
Two final points. First, these are just four techniques that I’ve seen work. There are more. These techniques are not an exhaustive list, only a representative one. Second, what I’ve said about battalion command teams also applies, modified a bit, from brigade through corps command teams. Brigade commanders and command sergeants major cannot assume their company commanders and first sergeants know how to think and act at the brigade level. Nor can division commanding generals and their command sergeants major assume their battalion-level leaders know how to think and act at the division level. Same at the corps level. This teaching Mission Command stuff goes all the way up and down the chain of command.
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Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.