Chester Corrie Consulting
Chester Corrie Consulting

Chester Corrie Consulting

Mission Command

Mission Command

Just what is Mission Command?

Mission Command is a military term describing the leadership and management style that has been employed for the last 30+ years by the British Armed Forces as part of their Warfighting Doctrine.

The tenets of Mission Command can translate and apply to civilian corporate life with much the same positive results ... however, there must be a climate and culture within the organisation to support this way of working.

Central to the success of Mission Command is capability for senior management to have sufficient vision and particularly strong communication skills to be able to define and communicate their ‘commander’s intent’.

This intent should be such that is understood by those who need to carry out subordinate actions (assuming of course they are competent and able to do so) as well as being appreciated by those ‘higher up the tree’.

Such an intent must be backed up by senior management making resources available to complete the mission and, thereby, deliver the effect intended … without becoming involved in the actual process itself … in other words, empowering their subordinates to carry out the task with freedom of choice as to how they do so.

Empowering staff - whether in military life or civilian life requires trust up and down the command chain (or lines of management) … without trust it is not possible to empower; without the ability to empower, there is no guarantee of operational success, in fact quite the opposite!

Mission Command Training and Facilitation

Robert Hopkin of Chester Corrie Consulting served in the Royal Air Force for 21 years leaving in the rank of Wing Commander - he served in a variety of bases at home and abroad and served operationally during the first Gulf War.

Robert Hopkin has been an exponent of Mission Command throughout his time in military service honed by 8 years in Joint UK military establishments (ie more than one UK Service arm present) as well as 5 years in Combined military establishments (ie more than one Nation present) - as such, he is able to advise individuals, groups and teams on the principles of Mission Command and how it can be employed.

Since leaving the Royal Air Force in 2009, Robert has worked in the private sector as a sector specialist for Rail SMEs and in the public sector as a course designer and lecturer for the Heart Of Worcestershire College’s Foundation Degree in Cyber Security.

For more information on how Mission Command can help you improve your company’s performance visit the contact page and specify Mission Command in your query.

Here follows a short paper on ‘Mission Command / Mission Leadership - A Corporate View’ by Colonel Bryan Watters that makes good reading and helps explain the various aspects of Mission Command - or, as he calls it, with a view to its relevance to corporate readership, Mission Leadership - read on…

Mission Command to Mission Leadership (creating the climate for maximising performance) A Corporate Philosophy - Colonel Bryan Watters

Mission (Command) Leadership: Historical Background

Mission Command or to give it a less military connotation ‘Mission Leadership’ is a doctrinal philosophy adapted formally by the British Army in 1987 from the Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik, a revolution in Prussian military thinking and leadership, developed after their defeat by Napoleon in the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, which first shattered and then scattered the Prussian army delivering a humiliating defeat.

The move from Befehlstaktik to Auftragstaktik represented a shift from a leadership methodology based on iron discipline and control where officers sought to counter the chaos of battle by imposing order based on mathematical principles; where the military leader sought victory by triumphing over the intrinsic chaos of the battlefield by imposing order based on pre ordained tactical and operational choreography. The shift was away from a doctrine based on orders (‘Befehl’) to one focused on the task (‘Auftrag’). The point being that it was the achievement of the task that was important, not how it was done.

In 1869 General Helmut Graf Von Moltke (Commander in Chief of the Prussian Army) promulgated and partly wrote the new Field Service Regulations which explained; Senior Commanders should ‘not order more than is absolutely necessary but should ensure the goal is clear. In case of doubt, subordinate commanders should seize the initiative’. This ‘invisible secret weapon’ developed by the Prussians delivered them victory in the return match with the French (now without Napoleon) and later with the Russians. Choreography had been replaced by improvisation with a guiding philosophy, which reconciled alignment with autonomy to achieve the desired outcome.

The deadlock and resulting industrialised attrition of the Western Front in the First World War was not a scenario in which Auftragstaktik was able to triumph. Its application, towards the end of the War, in strategically desperate circumstances, by General Eric Ludendorff, nearly pushed the Allies back to the North Sea coast. In General Douglas Haig’s words, it required them ‘to fight with their backs to the wall’. Unfortunately for Ludendorff and Germany, his ‘Storm Trooper’ led attack was the last Harrah of the Kaiser’s Army. Germany’s last offensive of the war was defeated by a combination of Allied resilience, leadership and firepower and an inability on the part of Ludendorff to resource and support his gains.

The zenith of Auftragstaktik was in the Second World War. Von Kleist, Guderian, Von Manstein and Rommel in their Generalship epitomised the Moltke philosophy.

However the Axis lost again, despite a doctrine that is now emulated by NATO. Why Auftragstaktik failed to deliver a victory to the German military machine is complex and not a subject for this paper. The lesson for today might be; if an operating philosophy is to deliver a strategic advantage its application must be inculcated, practiced and seamlessly applied throughout the organisation. Hitler’s contempt for its principles and increasing obsession with control undid the advantage of Auftragstaktik as Field Marshal Von Manstein explained in his book ‘War in the East’ (p 383). Another example is Normandy prior to D–Day. Hitler’s insistence on personally controlling the deployment of the Panzer reserves delayed their response and thus enabled the Allies to establish their Beach Heads.

A neutral Russian, General Woide observing the Prussian defeat of the French in 1870 (the return match) wrote ‘Every German subordinate commander felt himself to be part of a unified whole; in taking action, each one of them therefore had the interests of the whole at the forefront of their mind, none hesitated in deciding what to do, not a man waited to be told or even reminded’. Discipline in the German Army tradition did not mean following orders but acting in accordance with intentions. A last word on the German model from Von Manstein: ‘Two well established German leadership principals:

  • Always conduct operations elastically and resourcefully
  • Give every possible scope to the self–sufficiency of commanders at all levels’.

The introduction of Mission Command formally into British Military Doctrine did not happen until the late 1980s, which is hardly surprising since it was not until that date that the British Army adopted a common Doctrine: Design for Military Operations — 1987 thus addressing an increasingly recognised deficiency. With the establishment of The Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC) at Camberley and the publication of a common doctrine the focus of British military thinking was raised above tactical excellence to the more intellectual arena of the Operational Art. This process is largely attributed to the then General Sir Nigel Bagnall and his reforms that restructured the Army in Germany to meet new (or recognised) Soviet operational capabilities (read 'Hot War Cold War', Colin Mcinnes, Brassey’s, Chapter 3.)

Contemporary British Thinking on Mission (Command) Leadership

The contemporary philosophy of Mission (Command) Leadership has 4 enduring tenets:

  • Timely decision–making
  • The importance of understanding a superior Commander’s (Senior Manager’s/Leader’s) intention
  • A clear responsibility to fulfil that intention
  • An ability (underpinned by the superior’s planning) on the part of the subordinate to meet the superior’s remit

The underlying requirement is the fundamental responsibility to act (or decide not to act if that is the right thing to do) within the framework of the Commander’s (Senior Manager’s) intentions.

This (Mission Leadership as a Corporate Philosophy) requires a style/styles of strategic leadership which promote:

  • Decentralized decision making (formal delegation/empowerment)
  • Freedom (and speed) of action
  • Initiative

Key Elements of 'Mission Leadership'

A Commander (Senior Manager/CEO etc.) structures his/her orders (Formal directions) to ensure ‘subordinates’ (the team) understand his/her intentions, their own missions and the context of these missions.

Subordinate Leaders have explained to them by the Commander (Senior Manager/CEO etc.) what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved (importantly, and significantly, they are not told how to achieve it).

Subordinate Leaders are allocated the appropriate resources to carry out their missions (in order to allocate the resources, the ‘Line Leader’ will have focused 2 levels down on conceptually how his/her tasks can be carried out).

Subordinate Leaders during or after their planning can, with justification, ask for additional resources (they may indeed have been given too many resources and can offer some back - indeed, they are encouraged to do so).

A ‘Line Leader’ has a minimum of control measures so as not to limit unnecessarily the freedom of action of his/her subordinate leaders — importantly, the Line Leader empowers his/her subordinates with operational freedom. Mutual trust is at the heart of successful empowerment.

Subordinate Leaders then decide, within their delegated freedom of action, how best to achieve their missions.

Principles of 'Mission Command'

  • Unity of Effort (across the organisation)
  • Decentralisation
  • Trust (mutual, deep and enduring)
  • Mutual Understanding
  • Timely and Effective Decision–Making

The principles of Mission Command are largely self–evident. That said, ‘Unity of Effort’ may warrant some explanation: in order to achieve Unity of Effort the following criteria should be met:

  • Clear head and sense of purpose
  • Identification of ‘Main Effort’ by Commander/Line Leader
  • Understanding Intentions by:
    • Immediate Commander (Line Leader)
    • 2 levels up

‘Main Effort’ can be described economically as that activity the Commander/Line Leader considers crucial to the success of his/her mission at that time.

Consistency of the aim at 3 levels promotes mutual understanding; it also provides the basis of decentralisation of decision–making in fluid operations (crisis/change). Subordinates who are aware of the context (aka ‘the big picture’) are far more likely to continue acting purposefully in the light of an unexpected situation. In order to understand the ‘big picture’ the Estimate decision tool includes a procedure called Mission Analysis, which is explored later.


The task(s) and the purpose (eg I want you to do X (task) in order to achieve Y (purpose). The second step in the Estimate decision–making process is to analyse your Mission.

The Estimate

Defence Doctrine proposes a decision making cycle called the Estimate which is a 7–step decision–making tool designed to deliver a course of action, appropriate to the level of leadership, from a body of information.

Stage 1 Review of Situation

This entails a review of as much background information as possible relevant to the situation/crisis. This geo/cultural/economic/political/social/ diplomatic/environmental Strategic analysis should be wide ranging. It should examine anything and everything that pertains to the background, current situation and future implications of the situation or crisis. This submersion and orientation is fundamental to the success of the Estimate.

Stage 2 Mission Analysis

A logical analysis of the mission set in order to deduce the tasks necessary to fulfil the mission. The analysis places the effect you are required to generate in the wider context of the overall design and recognises the constraints that apply in time and space. This step is both the trigger and regulator of the estimate and is thus a dynamic process. It is reviewed at anytime in the Estimate or during the operation if the situation changes to such a degree that the validity of the plan is questioned. This process is explored later in the paper. At the conclusion of the analysis the Commander/Leader will give direction to; focus his/her team's planning effort, ensure subordinate teams are able to conduct concurrent activity and confirm the clarification required from above.

Stage 3 Evaluation of Factors

The factors that bear on the tasks are then considered to deduce/identify; tasks, constraints and points for clarification. The product of this stage is a list of these tasks, constraints and points for clarification that shape the thought process, underpin future detailed planning and produce key tasks that will need to be accomplished to fulfil the Mission.

Stage 4 Commander’s/CEO’s Course of Action Guidance

The Commander/CEO should give direction on all the potential Courses of Action (COA) that the planning team are to develop based on his/her judgement of what may be within the art of the possible and potentially decisive. The development of this guidance is an intuitive process based on intellect and experience.

Stage 5 Development of COAs

Following the direction of the Commander/CEO the planning team develop COAs as options as to how the Mission can be accomplished based on the evaluation of factors product. Each COA option must be achievable and credible. Each COA should be explained in sufficient detail to; demonstrate it fulfils the mission, broadly quantify the resources it requires and identify the time and space needed. In order to validate each COA, the effect of possible adverse reactions to its implementation must be researched. This can be done with simple action/reaction modelling or more sophisticated computer generated scenario models.

Stage 6 Consideration of COAs

For each of the identified course of action, a ‘cost benefit’ analysis is conducted. The criteria used to assess the relative advantages (benefits) and disadvantages (costs) of each possible course of action in relation to the Mission are down to the judgement of the leader. The criteria need to be consistent, objective and relevant to the scenario. This allows the Commander/CEO to assess the high risk/high gain options together with the low risk/low gain courses. The COAs should also be compared against your own and if relevant in the scenario the oppositions Centre of Gravity (Centre of Gravity or CoG is defined as: that aspect of an organisation's capability which if lost would pre–empt the demise of the organisation). The Commander/CEO then makes their decision on the preferred course of action.

Stage 7 The Commander’s/CEO’s Decision

The leader’s decision is the logical and intuitive result of the Estimate. The Decision constitutes the directive for the completion of the detailed planning and thus all future action. The CEO may not be involved with all of the detailed planning as this is an opportunity to demonstrate faith in the team and get out of the headquarters and visit the organisation. The CEO will however write the Commander’s Intent or the design for the operation. The product of this stage is a clear statement of the Commander’s/CEO’s Decision - ie what the organisation is to achieve.

The plan having been made, directives are designed written and formatted to explain the scope and detail of the overall plan and each participant’s part in it, including their mission. These are distributed prior, in the military tradition, to a face–to–face or, if necessary, an ‘on line’ formatted brief (again modelled on a German style exemplified by General Heintz Guderian) led by the Line Leader and his/her staff.

These briefs serve many purposes, not least the opportunity for the leader to present his/her plan and ‘sell’ it through the power of its compelling rationale and the strength of his/her conviction. The formatted brief is followed by questions from the leader and the floor to ensure a complete understanding of the plan and everyone’s part in it.

At any time the situation can change requiring a re–assessment of the Estimate to confirm the relevance of the plan. In all military operations, Commanders are required to engage in ‘risk assessment’ throughout the planning process and later when executing the mission.

The Estimate is a dynamic and demanding process requiring stamina, focus, and a depth of moral courage on the part of the leader and his/her close and extended team.

The Levels of Military Command

The Estimate is a decision-making tool which is used at all levels of military endeavour. At the operational (middle) level we use something called The Campaign Planning Tools, which convert direction from the Strategic (Highest) level into Campaigns or major operations, which the tactical (lowest) level delivers through tactical success in the Battle Space.

The Essentials of British Military Doctrine; A Summary

Complementing the underpinning philosophy of Mission Command there is the doctrine of The Manoeuverist Approach (lateral thinking, to develop competitive advantage). Military tasks are planned around the Core Functions — Find, Fix and Strike (Analyse, Nail down the issue and Solve the problem); these are organised and conducted within a conceptual framework of Deep (strategic shaping of future operations), Close (the customer interface) and Rear (the means of delivery) operations.

Acknowledgement: This article has been modified slightly by Robert Hopkin of Chester Corrie Consulting to improve readability for a civilian audience - but, by no means is it, or could it, be passed off as his own original work - at least 99% remains that of the originating author who explains his research rationale below:

I have used a number of sources for this short paper, specifically; expurgate pieces from the British Army’s British Military Doctrine (BMD) series of handbooks, British Defence Doctrine, attributed works in the text and an article not yet published by Stephan Bungay.

© Bryan Watters


  1. A Format for Mission Analysis.

Mission Analysis: The Format

1a (Why) Intention of Superior Commander
  • 2 levels up
  • 1 level up
How must my action directly support my immediate superior taking into account his intent and intent 2 levels up?  
1b My Role in his Plan    
2 (What) Tasks
  • Specified
  • Implied
What tasks must I complete to fulfil my mission?  
3 (What not? When?) Constraints
  1. Time.
  2. Space.
  3. Resources.
  • What limitations are there on my freedom of action
  • Why & when do I need to decide?
4 Changes to situation Since I received my orders (Instructions) has the situation changed to such a degree as to require me to have my mission clarified?  
5 Commander's Direction
  • Critical Information Requirement to focus staff (Planning) effort.
  • Planning Guidance (down-ensures concurrency).
  • Clarification of issues. (Up).

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