How the Germans Defined Auftragstaktik: What Mission Command is - AND - is Not by Don Vandergriff

Don Vandergriff has his latest article in the Small Wars Journal, on how Auftragstaktik (Mission Command) developed and why. Don has written numerous books on leadership to include his most recent Mission Command, Who, What, Where, When and Why: An Anthology (August 17), (Mission Command II is forthcoming). There is also insight from his forthcoming book, Developing for Mission Command: The Missing Link, a Handbook, (USNI OCT 19), which will be another outstanding resource for leaders. I have read the manuscript and it is indeed fantastic. We are together also working on an Instructors Manual which will be a companion book too The Adaptive Leadership Handbook: Innovative Way to Teach and Develop Your People (2014) and full of Tactical Decision Games that can be used by leaders and instructors to develop their people (to be published in early 2019).

In his current piece Don, digs deep in to the importance of command climate and organizational cultures role in ensuring mutual trust is developed and that Auftragstaktik is much, much more than just how to give mission type orders. It a great piece written with the military in mind but it has much value to policing and its leaders, looking to develop their own culture and climate towards true decentralized control, so problems can be solved at the street level. Don Vandergriff's grasp of history is outstanding and he is even better at applying the lessons from history to todays climate. You will find great value in Don's piece:

In general, one does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situation one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders that anticipate far in advance and in detail succeed completely to execution.

The higher the authority, the shorter and more general will the orders be. The next lower command adds what further precision appears necessary. The detail of execution is left to the verbal order, to the command. Each thereby retains freedom of action and decision within his authority. -- Helmut Karl Bernhard von Moltke, Instructions for Large Unit Commanders (1869)

Auftragstaktik or Mission Command,

Is not a Command and Control doctrine.

It is not a Command and Control system.

It is not a technology.

It is not a ticket to a “free for all.”

It is not a way to write short or no orders or to rely on verbal orders.

Auftragstaktik is a cultural philosophy. It is the highest form of military professionalism. The overall commander’s intent is for the member to strive for professionalism, in return, the individual will be given latitude in the accomplishment of their given missions. Strenuous, but proven and defensible standards will be used to identify those few capable of serving in the profession of arms. Once an individual has been accepted into the profession, a special bond forms with their comrades, which enables team work and the solving of complex tasks. This kind of command culture cannot be comprehensively conveyed in a sole block of official instruction. Instead, Mission Command must be integrated into all education and training from the very beginning of basic training. Even more importantly, it must be integrated into all aspects of so-called “garrison” life, in everything the military does.

Yet the ultimate command culture—because it empowers by trust the individual to best solve problems after extensive professional development—did not come into official being until the publication of the German 1888 Drill Regulations. The reform process that led to the first formal adoption of Mission Command by an armed force began with Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, (1755—1813) in the early 1800s and was taken up by August von Gneisenau (1760–1831) after his mentor’s untimely death in 1813, and later Leopold Hermann Ludwig von Boyen (1771–1848).[iv] This continued after decades of professional debate, implementation in officer development, and real-world application in three wars: the Danish-Prussian War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

In parallel, the U.S. Army has some great examples of similar command climates and approaches. As an institution, the U.S. Army has yet to see Mission Command as what it really is - a culture of professionalism. All too often, we have sought tangible metrics at the expense of holistic understanding. As a great practitioner, LTC Chad R. Foster says,

The intent behind changing the terminology was to get away from viewing the application of command merely in terms of technical systems and tasks. As usual, we seem to be missing the mark—Mission Command as we SAY we want it to be is a cultural concept, and one that can't be quantified in an easy metric. It also can't be standardized, at least not in the sense of specific step-by-step processes (our institutional favorite, of course).

Since the 1870s, when General Philip Sheridan and Lieutenant Colonel Emory Upton were sent by the U.S. Army to study the Prussian military system and other international militaries, we have failed to understand and apply the meaning of Auftragstaktik to our own organizational cultures. The U.S. Army like many other nations, copied the verbiage of Auftragstaktik verbatim, but failed to operationalize the concept. The same holds true today. The U.S. Army has always conflated Mission Command with bureaucratic efficiency, stemming from a time when the theories of Max Weber were emerging in Europe and the United States. As Muth writes,

Auftragstaktik. The word sounds cool even when mangled by an American tongue. What it means, however, has always been elusive to Americans. The problematic translation of that core German military word into 'mission type orders' completely distorts its meaning. Auftragstaktik does not denote a certain style of giving orders or a certain way of phrasing them; it is a whole command philosophy.

German officers who served in U.S. Army schools and observed the U.S. at war, sometimes tried to explain their command culture to their American counterparts. Captain Adolf von Schell, an exchange officer to the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia in the 1930s, translated Auftragstaktik into mission tactics:

In the German Army we use what we term “mission tactics”; orders are not written out in the minutest detail, a mission is merely given to a commander. How it shall be carried out is his problem. This is done because the commander on the ground is the only one who can correctly judge existing conditions and take proper action if a change occurs in the situation.

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