Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture

by Major Ryan Pallas

“The goal of a true teacher is to prepare the student to be a better problem solver than the teacher.” -Generaloberst von Seeckt

“Uber Heer und Krieg der Zukunft” MW 1928, no. 38, col. 1459

Don Vandergriff’s messaging, either conscious or subconscious, reminds me of the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The front cover of his book, “Adopting Mission Command,” reveals a Marine in desert utilities. My first thought was, “Is this any indication of what’s to come?” After reading his work, I can say whether intentional or otherwise, a picture of a Marine, and what that Marine represents, seems to be his desired end state.

Mr. Vandergriff’s work looks to instill Auftragstaktik into the Army culture of education in order to develop mission command. For those unfamiliar, Auftragstaktik is “the German idea…which implies that once one understands the commander’s intent, he or she is responsible for using creativity and initiative to adapt to changing circumstances and accomplish the mission.” (pg2).

As an active duty Marine I found familiarity in his work similar to the approach the Marine Corps uses with maneuver warfare. A timely work, to coincide with the recent release of MCDP 7 “Learning” and Education for Seapower 2020, the Marine Corps has always been, and will continue to be an institution that stresses the importance of learning, mentoring, and critical thought. I believe the Marine Corps has the ability to execute maneuver warfare successfully due to the emphasis placed on the education and development of the best non-commissioned officers in the DoD (I may be slightly biased as a Marine).

Mr. Vandergriff uses a historical perspective discussing Moltke and the Prussian Army bolstering his case for mission command, “as a rule an order should contain only what the subordinate for the achievement of his goals cannot determine on his own.” (pg 29). Mr. Vandergriff focuses on trying to not only create but educate a culture inculcated with initiative and critical thought. Mr. Vandergriff takes on the Army educational model, system, and methods providing not only solutions to fix the current system and approach but to also foster critical thinking and decisions at the lowest level. Examples and steps individuals can take at the lowest level are riddled throughout the chapters (Chapters 9-13 specifically) to lay the framework for success–including physical development. Reminiscent of General Mattis and his book, “Callsign CHAOS” discussing physical and mental endurance and how they are intrinsically linked while running with an Israeli exchange officer:

“on a sweltering run in the Virginia woods, bellowing at me that the physically vigorous life is not inconsistent with being intellectually on top of your game. “Read the ancient Greeks and how they turned out their warriors,” he said.

My favorite quote summarizing what Mr. Vandergriff is trying to achieve comes from Hans Von Seeckt, Chief German General Staff, “The principle thing now is to increase the responsibilities of the individual man, particularly his independence of action, and thereby to increase the efficiency of the entire army…The limitations imposed by exterior circumstances causes us to give the mind more freedom of activity, with the profitable result of increasing the ability of the individual.” (pg 259).

This work provides a critical look at the way the Army approaches the education and training of soldiers, but also provides a guidebook to begin taking steps to achieve critical thinking at all levels with the ability to synthesize information across broad contexts pushing decision-making down to the lowest levels with the ability to succeed on future battlefields. It also provides case studies using historic examples of how Auftragstaktik was successful in previous wars and how officers who may have seemed cavalier at the time, broke the mold and gave only verbal orders requiring the staff to cease the creation of written orders (I won’t spoil the historic case study for you–you have to read the book!).

I highly recommend this work for any service, Marine, Army, or otherwise. I also think with the creation of the Navy’s Chief Learning Officer, MCDP 7, Education for Seapower 2020, the Army’s BCAP, and other initiatives discussed throughout the DoD, many in the positions to change the way business has been conducted, with respect to training and education are now in positions to do so. These individuals also seem to have a keen desire to start improving the way the DoD is educated, trained, and equipped to achieve success on future battlefields. Don Vandergriff is only adding valuable discourse to the discussion providing usable solutions to implement today.