Mission Leadership – creating CEOs from within

Leadership is a hot topic in today’s business world. The last recession caused existential crises in businesses across the world, and strong leadership was needed to bring successful companies through those dark days. But leadership is not something that is gifted to CEOs before they take high office. Instead, leadership is something that is honed over an entire career and some of the best lessons in leadership are often as a result of mistakes made early in a career. Any company that is serious about its own existence and its long-term survival should be looking closely at how to develop leadership at every level of the business. How does a business create a strong pipeline of leaders who can delegate effectively, engender trust, and empower team members? In a world that is exposed to new and varied risks, how can a company train its leaders to identify, mitigate and manage risk effectively?

During my 17-year military career as an officer with the Defence Forces, I was fortunate to be exposed to a management philosophy known as Mission Command or Mission Leadership which has increasing relevance in an Irish business environment that is facing significant risks from Brexit, to climate change, to the expectations of a new generation of workers.

Mission Leadership traces its origins back to the Battle of Jena in 1806 where the Prussian Army was soundly beaten by the French under Napoleon. The ability of a single commander to control the battlefield was being eroded by the early nineteenth century as the increasing scale of the battlefield (due to increased industrialisation) and also the practical difficulties of seeing through the smoke of muskets and cannon meant that a new way of selecting and training officers was needed. In the aftermath of that battle, the Prussians fundamentally reassessed how they executed their military strategies. The Prussians (and later Germans) continued to hone this military philosophy (which became known as Auftragstaktik) through their officer training which had at its heart the principles of developing trust, empowering subordinates to achieve the commander’s intent, and encouraging disciplined initiative on the battlefield. The benefits of this command philosophy became very apparent to Allied forces by the end of the Second World War, and it became the standard methodology for training officers in many Nato and Western armies.
The speed and scale of modern business is comparable in many respects to the battlefield. There are constantly new risks on the horizon that need to be assessed, new threats evolving, and new actors impacting the situation for better or worse. Like military commanders, CEOs cannot be experts in every facet of the business under their control – the marketer may not be a finance guru and vice versa. They must however be able to articulate a clear vision and intent that enables those below them to take decisive action based on that over-arching intent. In essence, the modern military commander seeks to create high alignment and high autonomy within the force – everybody knows what the boss wants achieved even when they cannot give detailed orders for every specific situation, and everybody is empowered to act to achieve that intent. What becomes clear therefore, is that the articulation of one’s intent is a task not to be taken lightly; it must be carefully thought through and precisely crafted. Equally, it is not a static statement – it evolves in parallel with the situation, and is updated accordingly.
Another interesting aspect of how the military tries to always achieve the commander’s intent is its focus on the unifying purpose. The “just do it” mentality within military forces has long passed. Any commander sending troops into harm’s way will always focus heavily on the ‘why’ behind every operation. Understanding the ‘why’ on a chaotic battlefield, or in a delicate peace-support operation is very empowering for soldiers. They are not only told what their direct boss wants them to achieve, but also their boss’s boss. Purpose in the business context has also come into far sharper focus in the past decade as young employees not only want a job, but want to make a difference while doing it. The rise of social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility has been a response to this demand in a new generation of employees. Recently I heard a successful Irish entrepreneur suggest at a business conference that the 7Ps of marketing should add an eighth P – Purpose – as she felt it was becoming a critical factor in how companies need to approach the market. BlackRock CEO, Larry Fink, echoed this sentiment in a recent letter to companies in which BlackRock invests, stating that purpose is the “animating force” for achieving profit. Amongst a post-industrial, knowledge-based and often distributed workforce, the ‘why’ is becoming as important as the ‘what’ we do for a living and those companies that can clearly articulate their purpose can use it as a competitive advantage.
The theory of articulating a compelling vision, intent and purpose is not difficult to understand, but in reality is far more difficult to execute. Like all things difficult, it is only through practice that it becomes easier. Executives in the early stages of their careers can take a page out of this playbook whether they are project managers, business unit managers or account managers. Laying out to your team what you want them to achieve, why you want them to achieve it, and then letting them get on with it is a great way to avoid micromanagement, grow and develop your staff, and quickly identify those with promotional prospects. Of course, giving latitude to your team in this manner runs the risks of mistakes being made, however as a leader, you will soon begin to recognise that the mistakes can as often be root-caused to the lack of clarity in your intent as it can to the errors made by your team. A quoted attributed to the Second World War US General, George S. Patton suggests to “never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity”.
None of this is to suggest that mission leadership is a panacea for businesses or leaders looking to develop themselves. Mission leadership is as much a culture as a methodology; it relies on trust first and foremost both up and down the chain of command. It cannot be implemented overnight in a company or be deployed easily by an individual. However, for individuals who aspire to high office, and who know they will need to manage cross-functional teams, it is certainly worth reading more on this topic as it’s never too early to develop leadership skills in preparation for the top job some day.

Morgan Mangan
Morgan is a Partner at Amrop, Ireland’s longest-established executive search consultancy. Amrop has 75 offices in 49 countries and specialises in Executive Search, Leadership Advisory, and Board Services.