Humility: A Mission Command Essential
Humility: A Mission Command Essential
On Sept. 8, 2009, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, Capt. William D. Swenson earned the Medal of Honor by displaying conspicuous gallantry. That heroic event revealed Swenson’s true character. As he placed a mortally wounded comrade on a helicopter, a video camera captured the scene as he bent over and kissed him briefly on the forehead before returning to evacuate at least four additional comrades.That kiss tells us more about Swenson and, more broadly, about the essence of heroism than anything found in his Medal of Honor citation. Swenson’s teammates report that this behavior was typical. That day and throughout his deployment, Swenson’s respect and care for his subordinates and his humble leadership created a cohesive team that was built on mutual trust, so heroism came naturally.As they reflect on their actions that earned them the nation’s highest military award, most Medal of Honor recipients share the same story of courage through self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, there is more we can learn from this character trait than selfless courage, particularly its application in executing Mission Command.Today’s complex and uncertain environment highlights the need for leaders who can effectively exercise Mission Command in such a manner that they confidently delegate authority and responsibility. It is in this environment that humility emerges as an essential attribute for Army leaders. Humility serves as the catalyst for reducing the risk and friction inherent in command, and it can preserve perspective and self-control, potentially preventing the blind spots and trappings sometimes found in positions of power. Leaders are not born with humility; rather, it is learned and developed over time. Leaders who learn to be more humble will gain a decisive edge when practicing Mission Command.
Principles to Consider
A humble leader……exudes self-confidence and recognizes that the best ideas come from those closest to the problem.…puts the organization first recognizing that he/she is merely a temporary steward of our profession.… shows that he/she cares by investing in the people they serve.…assumes blame for failure and focuses praise on subordinates.…creates a culture of disciplined initiative by underwriting risk and supporting bold action.…seeks to flatten organizations and break down stovepipes creating a free flow of information and ideas.… creates a learning environment where people are not afraid to fail.___________________________________________________________________________Humble leaders seek to break down organizational stove-pipes, empowering greater collaboration across and within the organization. Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is one of the finest examples of this attribute. A DEFENSETECH article described how “during his five years at [Joint Special Operations Command] and his truncated command of [International Security Assistance Force], McChrystal flattened hierarchies, empowered subordinates and everywhere pushed a freer flow of information between operators and analysts, between commanders and their units and even between oftentimes distrustful allies.” This example shows how humility can enhance shared understanding.Disciplined InitiativeArmy doctrine defines disciplined initiative as “action in the absence of orders, when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise.” Fostering disciplined initiative requires an environment of mutual trust and a shared understanding within the organization that empowers subordinate leaders, like Swenson in Afghanistan, with authority to take action and accept risks with the full support of their supervisor or commander.Humble leaders value the judgment of their subordinates and encourage them to take advantage of fleeting opportunities without waiting for approval. This quality is essential in a complex operating environment, in which the subtle nuances in cultural context can have tremendous impact on decisions.Units whose leaders exercise humility are more likely to promote a culture of disciplined initiative and audacity of action that is essential to winning in a complex world. Subordinate leaders are more likely to exercise initiative and take decisive action knowing that their commanders will support them.The beach landings at Normandy provide an ideal case study demonstrating the power of disciplined initiative based on trust. On the Allied side, airborne forces missed drop zones, and amphibious forces landed on the wrong beaches. Yet amidst the chaos, leaders emerged who were able to keep sight of and operationalize Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vision. On the other side, Adolf Hitler’s forces, arguably better equipped and better organized, were paralyzed to respond to the invasion in the early hours of June 6, 1944, because no one dared wake Hitler to authorize the commitment of much needed armored reserves in Normandy.In his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, Simon Sinek wrote, “The more energy is transferred from the top of the organization to those who are actually doing the job, those who know more about what is going on on a daily basis, the more powerful the organization and the more powerful the leader.” This transfer of energy requires, above all, a humble leader who sees himself within the proper context in his organization. Delegating authority and responsibility without giving it away creates initiative in organizations. It also requires trust and understanding, built on a leader’s humility.Learning HumilityWhile some people are more naturally inclined to a humble disposition, experience suggests that with time, effort and wisdom, a leader can learn humility. George Washington serves as one such example. A young lieutenant colonel, Washington served as the commander of the Virginia militia and, by all accounts, was a highly ambitious and impetuous leader. His reckless actions in 1754 led to the capture of his entire unit at Fort Necessity. Compare this to his fateful decision nearly 30 years later, when he rejected thoughts of a military overthrow of the young government and humbly appeared before Congress to request nothing more than a quiet retirement to Mount Vernon, Va.