Christmas decorations are tricky things, they spend eleven months in a box and one on a tree, they are an important staple of the Christmas experience; we always know when some are missing. This week I was chatting to a friend, an intelligent, educated, and extremely competent Army officer who had lost a box of precious decorations. Quite correctly, the loss was assessed to have been a result of the latest house move: the Army’s removal service, left to carry out a task unsupervised, had mislaid Christmas! In a curious twist, later that same day I read an anonymous blog on the excellent Wavell Room site entitled ‘The Erosion of Mission Command in Barracks’. In that article, the author bemoaned the perceived trend of an Army increasingly failing to follow its own doctrine in barracks. The cause of this erosion was, it was claimed, a combination of risk-aversion by commanders, and the proliferation of management information systems. Superficially we might consider both scenarios to be resultant from a lack of trust and familiarity, for me, however, they highlighted a deeper problem: we have little faith in the competence of those on whom we depend.
Trust, as the latest ADP Land Operations states with outstanding clarity, is a pre-requisite of command at all levels, but upon what is trust built? The answer, I propose, is experience; it is a fair bet that on the next move the Christmas decorations will be more tightly policed! The root cause of greater application of the ‘long-handled screwdriver’ by higher commanders in barracks, is the failure of subordinates in whom trust has been previously placed; ‘Once Bitten, Twice Shy’. The follow-on questions begged are: Why did subordinates fail in the past? What can be done to address the causes of failure? How do we put Mission Command back into operation in barracks? In my experience, failure in barracks has three causes, failure of communication, failure of understanding, and lack of education. We fail to articulate precisely what it is that we want because we assume our subordinates have the time and the knowledge to solve the problem, our subordinates fail to understand because instructions aren’t clearly articulated or they don’t have the time, experience, or inclination to carry out the task, and everyone fails because whilst we may have taken time to train our soldiers, we have failed to ensure they are educated: Train for the Known, Educate for the Unknown.
So if we communicate better, get to know subordinates better, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and ensure that they are not just trained but educated, Mission Command should be fit for purpose in barracks? Well yes and no. Certainly, in long established teams in a stable organisation this would be the case, but in an organisation committed to constant change perhaps befehlstaktik is preferable? I leave you with that thought as I contemplate my mince pies, auftragstaktik is, for me, the preferred answer; communication and education are key. Before you go, make sure you brief your movers and make them a cuppa, know your team, Christmas comes but once a year!