One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Mission Command versus the Army Personnel System

August 15, 2011

How does the Army create strategic corporals, strategic lieutenants, strategic majors and strategic colonels? The trick is to instill a culture like the one embodied in the Army’s new Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-0, The Army Capstone Concept: Operational Adaptability; Operating Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict. The emphasis is on evolving toward the practice and culture of Mission Command. The essence of this approach is to ensure that the Army leads through Auftragstaktik, a German word that implies that once everyone understands the commanders’ intent (two levels up), then people are free to and indeed duty-bound to use their creativity and initiative to accomplish their missions within the intent, adapting to changing circumstances. Within such an environment, teams will largely self-organize within the doctrinal framework to accomplish the mission. A military culture that supports Mission Command takes time to develop and must be embraced across the entire spectrum of the Army and practiced in every institution—operational and generating forces—while decrees from above cannot magically decentralize operations conducted by adaptive leaders.

A personnel system that would evolve out of Mission Command should encourage tomorrow’s Soldiers and leaders to impart creative freedom and authority upon their juniors—an unprecedented and largely underdeveloped step. And those juniors—officers, noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and civilians—require relentless schooling, training and encouragement in preparing to wisely use that freedom under Mission Command. The uncompromising goal of a new personnel system is to make each individual member of the Army a person who—in character, capability and knowledge—is self-reliant, self-confident and dedicated to taking responsibility as a leader.

The adaptation of Mission Command increases demands for responsibility and innovation at the NCO and junior officer levels and will force civilians to step up as well. It advocates a true meritrocracy based on esotericism.3 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. Key to the Army’s adjustment is the ability of personnel systems to support developing and empowering adaptability in individuals for operations in the future complex environment. Additionally, these personnel systems must sustain the allvolunteer force over persistant conflict and beyond. The increasing demands of lifelong service in the profession of arms will strain individuals and the personnel systems that support them.

Systems and procedures that empower individuals under Mission Command are essential to encouraging continued service and professional development. Successfully encouraging such development will require innovative and flexible ways of using personnel, and Soldiers 2 must expect to have careers different from those experienced by previous and current Army senior leaders. An evolution in the way Soldiers are promoted, assigned and educated will bring about changes in the Army culture that will sustain the all-volunteer force in the future complex operational environment.

“Adaptability” is a somewhat elusive term, and its meaning can vary between two extremes. Adaptation can be dynamic or passive: it can either shape or be shaped by the situation, as necessary to maximize the advantage. Innovation and being able to “think on one’s feet” and improvise are prerequisites for dynamic, not passive, adaptability. Therefore, to develop dynamically adaptive leaders, the Army must develop innovative ones first, which is a very tall order and suggests why the “journey” to adapting a new personnel system will be timeconsuming and less than straightforward. Developing innovative, adaptive leaders forces two very basis questions: What leader attributes should Army development efforts address, and how is the Army going to grow them?

In short, supporting the adaptive and agile force envisioned for Mission Command suggests reassessment of the existing personnel management systems, which were created for linear warfare during the Industrial Age. This paper examines key processes of Army personnel management, which include promotions, assignments and education, to considerations for improving Human Capital management and, more important, entertains questions that must be addressed before evolving today’s personnel system to one that can support Mission Command.