Success Requires More Than a Buzzword
The Army partially defines Mission Command as the commander’s “exercise of authority and direction … to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.” Before a culture of Mission Command succeeds, however, the Army must possess the moral courage to identify countless barriers and then tear them down. Otherwise, attempts to realize Mission Command will exist only as rhetoric and buzzwords on PowerPoint slides and in doctrinal slogans. The consequence will be the disillusionment of the next generation of leaders when they hear one thing but experience the same old, ineffective actions.
So how does the Army develop leaders to succeed under Mission Command? The answer is simple: The Army has to institutionalize it across training and operational commands. Adaptive Soldier Leader Training and Education (ASLTE) is an emerging methodology to develop Mission Command in all soldiers, from initial training through war college attendance.
In the past, the competency theory of learning dominated course curriculums. Signs of it remain in leader development today. As I wrote in a 2010 Association of the U.S. Army Institute of Land Warfare paper, “Competency theory is a product of the old Industrial Age outlook that once, by necessity, governed the way military forces prepared for war.”
This assembly line mentality made sense when we relied on a massed citizen army of draftees. But the disadvantage was that it emphasized output more than the individual quality of the product.
Competency-based education evolved from The Principles of Scientific Management, published in the early 1900s by management and efficiency theorist Frederick W. Taylor. By the end of World War II, public schools had adapted it as a foundation for their curriculum. Educators used Taylor’s ideas to create proficiency standards selected by a centralized authority.
“Industrial-age organizations seek routine and habit achieved through standardized procedures,” according to a 2004 U.S. Army War College Parameters article about leadership education. “Complex tasks are therefore broken into simple steps … to ensure that employees are both interchangeable and easily replaced. Bureaucratic hierarchies tend to value quantifiable assessment of specific aspects of complex managerial tasks.”
A modern manifestation of competency-based education is the tendency for teachers to “teach the test” to ensure better scores on standardized tests. This has been criticized as teaching what to think instead of how to think.
Assembly Line Approach Continues
Today, some leader-centric programs within the institutional Army still reflect the old assembly line approach. Rigid order and control from the top are at the heart of all curriculums put together by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command that use the competency theory as their foundation. The practice continues despite rhetoric about adaptability development.
Leader development for the full spectrum of 21st-century military operations must be based on the quality of leaders, not quantity of personnel, at every grade level. The rule should be that soldiers deserve and require trained leaders. Schools must constantly put students in difficult, unexpected situations and then require them to decide and act under time pressure.
Schooling must take students out of their comfort zones. Mental, moral and physical stress must be constant. War games, tactical decision games, map exercises and free-play field exercises must constitute the bulk of the curriculum. Anything in the name of process—drills; ceremonies; and adhering to task, condition and standards, or task proficiency—is not important.
Under Mission Command development, the emphasis should be growing the decision-maker by explaining the reason for the task and teaching in the context of a problem-solving exercise. Higher command levels overseeing officer and NCO schools must look for flexible courses guided by outcomes rather than inputs, and allow instructors to evolve their lesson plans using innovative teaching techniques and tools for an ever-changing environment.
The ASLTE methodology, when taught as a “train the trainer” course, also uses the U.S. Army’s doctrine of Mission Command as its vehicle to teach the tools of developing adaptability. The goal is to make soldiers and leaders better teachers, not instructors, while showing them how to teach using the principles and tools of ASLTE.
Through ASLTE, students learn how to incorporate what they have learned in existing programs of instruction. They begin to understand how to move beyond competency-based learning to outcomes- or discovery-based learning. This methodology also conforms to the latest research by Robert Bjork, a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Additionally, students learn other things that will make them better teachers and leaders. Most importantly, they learn how to create and sustain a fail-safe environment that encourages peer-to-peer and discovery learning under the facilitation of a teacher or student.
The students take ownership of learning and encourage others to do so as well. At the same time, they develop strength of character and how to take responsibility for their own decisions.
From the start, ASLTE teachers ensure that students are involved in problem-solving games exposing them to a variety of subjects that lead them to become better teachers, while understanding how adaptability and Mission Command work. Students learn through doing, such as how to present a good after-action review. Doing it right is emphasized from the beginning by facilitating the review toward a stated outcome.
Students use an array of tools to assist in developing adaptability, which is an evolving process. During the course, students must demonstrate the art of facilitation while conducting decision-making exercises, tactical decision exercises and after-action reviews. Also, they are introduced to war gaming, free play force-on-force exercises, and adaptive leader physical training.
Most importantly, they become familiar with how to produce outcomes and measures of effectiveness, or assessments, to judge student learning. And finally, they are encouraged to experiment with new ways to develop adaptability as well as their own leadership and teaching styles. This is accomplished each day by teachers who continually challenge and direct students away from old methods while encouraging them to employ what they are hearing, doing and seeing.
Up until the final day, students view a correct after-action review focusing on one to three points the teacher wants students to discuss. They also view a proper problem-solving or decision-making game while they participate, and then facilitate every tactical decision exercise. And finally, students conduct after-action reviews in front of peers and teachers.
On the final day of the multiday course, students demonstrate proficiency in the art of facilitation while conducting decision-making exercises, tactical decision exercises and after-action reviews.
The key aspect of the course is that students are encouraged to return to their courses or units and begin evolving their programs of instructions or lesson plans into ones that incorporate the principles and tools of ASLTE. This does not need to be done all at once, as the students are now teaching others how to use ASLTE.
Additionally, students are introduced to reading selections during the course and are required to brief their peers with a summary of what they have read. The students are also provided with real-world examples of leaders who have applied innovative ideas that have made their units or organizations better.