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Leader Development, Learning Agility and the Army Profession

October 8, 2012

For the military, operational environments are a composite of the conditions, circumstances and influences that affect capabilities and decisions and include all enemy, friendly and neutral systems as well as the physical environment, governance, local resources, culture and technology. Such environments require leaders who are adaptive and agile and are able to make ethical, informed decisions efficiently and effectively. Current Army doctrine calls for “mission command,” “task and purpose” and “intent-based” orders to guide the execution of military operations. The premise behind such concepts is that we expect trained and resourced leaders to operate within broadly defined boundaries and, armed with the commander’s intent, to successfully accomplish a large variety of missions. The Army’s emphasis is on decentralized execution based on mission orders. Appropriately, the focus is on the purpose of the operation rather than on the details of how to perform the assigned task. This calls for ethical, adaptable leaders.

Anecdotally, many Army leaders would agree with the preceding paragraph. Those who have spent time in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and have worked within an enormous area of operations, understand that subordinate leaders need to be resourced and entrusted to make decisions and operate many, many miles from the unit’s higher command. This demands decentralized execution based on mission orders. Such a concept is not new. This is similar to how units (Allied and German) conducted operations in World War II. The scale of the battlefield and the limitations in communication technology made this a necessity. Combat operations in Korea were conducted along the same lines. Arguably, it was with the war in Vietnam that there was a shift in how commanders exerted command and control. The advent of the helicopter and technological advances in communications gave commanders the ability to garner close to “real time” situational awareness and thereby exert greater, centralized control of subordinate units.

After Vietnam, the Army’s focus was on Cold War operations with a relatively predictable enemy. The expected nature of the European battlefield—one large campaign with multiple units involved side by side along a broad front—made it essential to centralize and efficiently manage various elements of combat power. Subordinate units collected information to support senior commanders’ decisions; rarely did the reverse occur. Most assets and most of the capability to analyze the information they gathered resided at division headquarters and higher. Similar arrangements governed the operational planning and employment of artillery, aviation, transportation and a host of other assets. A centralized battlefield required a centralized Army.

Unlike the relatively stable and predictable environment of the late Cold War, today’s battlefields evolve rapidly. They differ greatly from place to place and from one time to another. The luxury of being able to predict problems that units will face is gone, as is the ability to work out the best solutions in advance. For example, a brigade commander in the post-9/11 operational environment has an enormous and complex fighting organization, complete with multiple and competing tasks. Units are spread over hundreds of miles. Company operations run from combat outposts and must be nested with the brigade commander’s intent (two command levels up). Clearly, the brigade commander cannot be physically present everywhere to ensure that company commanders are operating within that intent. Present-day communication platforms allow higher commanders to access close-to-real-time information on friendly force disposition, and increasing requirements for pre-mission approval and post-mission debriefings add to the commander’s situational awareness. In reality, however, given the dispersion of forces and the constraints of terrain, weather and other battlefield factors, the brigade commander must trust subordinate leaders to conduct operations within the stated intent and to exercise decentralized decisionmaking within the complexity of the operational environment. This is mission command.

Mission command demands that when necessary, unit leadership should coordinate and act together even without receiving specific direction from above. The result will be an evolving leadership style that requires leaders and commanders to focus their attention downward and outward onto the battlefield. The adaptation of mission command increases demands for responsibility and innovation at all levels. These demands place a greater premium on 1) adaptability to emergent situations, 2) operating with and within joint, interagency and multinational organizations, 3) rapid responsiveness and 4) the mental and physical agility to capitalize on opportunities in the field.9 Key to the Army’s adjustment is the ability to support leader development and empowering adaptability in individuals for operations in the current and future complex environment.

Leaders do not automatically “learn” about mission command. It is not something that simply happens to them, at either the higher or lower levels of unit command. It needs to be how the Army does business all of the time. During home station operations, mission orders and decentralized execution should be the modus operandi. If the Army is going to trust junior leaders to make critical decisions on an isolated outpost, they must be trusted to make similar decisions during training and normal, routine operations at home station.

Equally important is how such a mission command approach is engrained in institutional leader development systems. Mission command is not a concept solely within the purview of the operational force. Such an approach needs to be part of the very fabric of the Army organization, taught and highlighted in Army education and training and reinforced in the personnel assignment process. Specific broadening assignments that allow for personal, educational and developmental opportunities would result in more effective leaders in this increasingly complex operational environment. Traditionally, the Army culture values and rewards those junior leaders who have extensive amounts of time in the tactical arena. Such positions are key to the development of effective tactical commanders. In this changing world, however, education and broadening experiences are instrumental to developing imaginative operational and strategic leaders, those who will master the current and emerging domestic and global complexities.