Mission Command – A Military Idea Wins Big in Corporate America


Can Mission Command Come From the Front Lines?

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 giving the power of mission command to the front-line leadership. Best Buy, a leading electronics retailer, recognizes that the ‘troops’ should be expected to act as local ‘generals’ to generate innovative solutions and new knowledge.

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

Take Command of Your Execution Strategy

If you build it into your execution strategy to recruit and train the right people, then it all comes down to trust. Trust is the essence of what the U.S. military calls Mission Command and is the basis of Afterburner’s Flawless Execution methodology. “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.” 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 the 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 know 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. In short, long-term goals motivate, but without short-term wins, we tend to lose interest and falter.

Better Strategic Alignment Gives Your Front Line People More Chances to Succeed

Autonomy is also a key ingredient in mission command. To have the freedom to decide how you will accomplish 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.” Small wins create confidence that you can be successful in larger endeavors. Once you have self-confidence, others can develop trust in your potential to succeed. Organizational trust will spiral upward from there when you empower your frontline people. 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 strategic alignment between the executives and the front-line which moves you towards the common goals. 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 upward 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.” 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 of time. 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 organization as a whole. Do this, and you will set up the right conditions for success.

Will Duke is Afterburner’s Director of Learning and Development. His duties include coordination of the development of intellectual property, training programs, and educational materials. He also serves as a consultant to process and continuous improvement management programs. With Co-author James “Murph” Murphy, he wrote the 2010 release “The Flawless Execution Field Manual. Duke currently serves as a senior Human Resources Officer in the in the U.S. Navy Reserve and has held numerous command and positions throughout his career.


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