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Mission Command – A Military Concept Winning Big in Corporate America

USA forces walking through river in Haiti during military exercise.

How Military Concepts Can Help You in the Corporate World …

It’s a simple idea; empower and train your front line leaders to make the right decisions aligned with long-term goals. More and more companies are discovering the power of autonomous, front-line leadership. Best Buy, a leading electronics retailer, has recognized that the ‘troops’ should be expected to act as local ‘generals’ in order to generate creative solutions and new knowledge.i

This focus on the front-line has been especially important in a turbulent market suffering from the disruptive influence of on-line retailers like Amazon. Amazon, too, has recognized the value of empowering its front-line leaders. Famous for hiring vast numbers of military veterans for their capacity to lead and execute in a volatile and complex environment, Amazon empowers its employees to have a bias for action because, as their espoused leadership principles state: “Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Photo of US Marines conducting a silent drill and a military plane flying close-by in the background.

Similarly, Ecolab’s CEO, Doug Baker, has noted that front-line decision-making might result in some bad calls, but that those could be caught and fixed faster when they get pushed down to the lower management levels.ii

If you recruit and train the right people, it all comes down to trust. Trust is the essence of what the U.S. military calls Mission Command. “Trust is the moral sinew,” writes General Martin Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “that binds . . . the many to act as one.”iii But, how do you develop the connective tissue of trust in an organization so that those front-line leaders can lead aligned execution to organizational goals? The answer is simple, keep it small!

Small wins. Short-term successes. These ideas are at essence of being mission-oriented and executing mission command. The change management expert, John Kotter, has noted the importance of what he calls ‘short-term wins’ to successful change initiatives. The reason small wins are so important to effective front-line leadership is that they are deeply rooted in our psychology. We’ve known for a long time that having smaller, more frequent successes is important to engaging people in their work. But, more recent research has uncovered an interesting paradox. Although achieving frequent small wins makes us happier, pursuing long-range goals makes us happy too.iv In short, we get motivated to pursue long-term goals, but without short-term wins we tend to lose interest and falter.

Autonomy is also an important ingredient in mission command. To have the freedom to decide how you will carry out a task is a basic human need. As the psychologist Ron Friedman has noted, “Grow people’s experience of competence and you’ll inevitably grow their engagement.v You have to have small wins to feel confident that you could be successful in larger endeavours. Once you have self-confidence, others can develop trust in your potential to succeed. Organizational trust spirals upward from there. We humans are happy when we are empowered to pursue small, short-term missions or projects as stair steps along the path to achieving greater things.

The lesson is simple: define the future you want to create – set long-range goals. But, then translate those long-range goals into the many short-range missions that need to be accomplished to get there. That creates the necessary goal alignment between the executives and the front-line. With that, give your front line leaders the autonomy to pursue those goals the best way they can. Trust them to be successful and a virtuous circle of small wins will cascade up into long-term organizational success.

When leaders empower, rather than control;” writes Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, “when they ask the right questions, rather than provide the right answers; and when they focus on flexibility, rather than insist on adherence, they move to a higher form of execution.vi Success on this front requires organizations to consider the mission as the fundamental building block of future success. Keep those missions small enough for front-line teams to tackle and win over a short period. And, make sure there is clear alignment from that mission to the long-range and strategic goals of the organization so that those on the front-line can see why they need to be successful and how their efforts impact the organizati. Do this, and you will have set up the right conditions for success.

References

 i. Tichy and Bennis. Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls. (Portfolio, 2007). Pp. 257.

ii. Lorsch and McTague. “Culture Is Not The Culprit.” Harvard Business Review, April 2016. Pp. 101.

iii. General Martin E. Dempsey, U.S. Army. “Mission Command White Paper.” April 3, 2012.

iv. Ron Friedman. The Best Place to Work. (Perigee, 2014) Pp. 84 & 167.

v. Ibid. Pp. 159.

vi. Amy C. Edmondson. Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. (Jossey-Bass, 2012). Pp. 8.

About the author

WILLIAM M. DUKE

WILLIAM M. DUKE

William M. Duke is a retired Naval Officer and Master Practitioner of the Flawless Execution methodology. He is the co-author of The Debrief Imperative (Premiere, 2011) and Down Range: A Transitioning Veteran’s Career Guide to Life’s Next Phase (Wiley, 2013).

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