Sunday, September 29, 2013

Trust: The Cornerstone of Mission Command

A cornerstone is usually the first stone laid in the construction of a building.It is essential and indispensable since it unites the walls of a building at an intersection. Leadership is based on relationships and a key building block in any relationship is the cornerstone of trust. I teach a leadership course based on the Mission Command leadership philosophy.

Here is what  Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-0 Mission Command says about trust:

“Trust must flow throughout the chain of command. To function effectively, commanders must trust their subordinates, and subordinates must trust their commanders.”

Mission Command includes the following principals :

-Build Cohesive Teams through Mutual trust.
-Create shared understanding
-Provide a clear Commander's intent
-Exercise Disciplined Initiative
-Use mission orders
-Accept prudent risk

Trust is the cornerstone of Mission Command.  It is the responsibility of leaders to earn trust through the building of relationships. There is a reason “ Build Cohesive Teams through Mutual trust” is at the top of the list. The mission command philosophy emphasizes the decentralization of decision authority. This requires “Mutual Trust” and if there is no trust then leaders will centralize decision authority and not empower subordinates.

Leader development is a continuous process and leaders should be developed into lifelong learners. For leaders to practice the principals of mission command they need to be educated and trained. My class just finished a study of Mission Command.

Cadets discussing Mission Command in class
I had the cadets write about their main takeaways to demonstrate their understanding. Here are a few:

-“My main takeaways from mission command involve the connection between mutual trust and providing clear intent. I think the ability to be as transparent as possible in leadership and to communicate clear intent to subordinates builds that mutual trust in a relationship. Additionally, exercising disciplined initiative shows understanding and ability and adds to mutual trust between a leader and subordinate. I think i learned that clear intent/communication and disciplined initiative/confidence are the main building blocks in mutual trust which is absolutely essential for maximum effectiveness in a relationship as well as a unit.”

-“My takeaways from the mission command block can all fall into the personal relationship between commanders and subordinates. Every principle of mission command provides a different aspect of accomplishing a mission that requires the commander and subordinate to understand each other. At the bottom line, if a commander can understand how the subordinate thinks and generally agrees with the thought process, mission command will succeed. For example, the commander will trust the leader to execute orders while taking prudent risks. Vice versa, if the subordinate leader can understand the commander's perspective, the leader will fulfill the commanders intent with disciplined initiative in a confident manner that will allow full follow through and mission completion. If a subordinate and a commander cannot see the others point of view or has no understanding of how the other thinks, the relationship will quickly degrade and instead of commanders intent being handed down, an exact list of details to complete will be handed down causing more work for the commander and leaving little opportunity for the subordinate leader to accomplish anything of great worth. The relationship is very personal and every action leads to or breaks trust that is the basis of success and failure in a mission command environment.”

-“Main takeaways from mission command:At the outset of this block I truthfully had no understanding of mission command. To try to tease out its meaning, I broke the phrase down into its two, separate parts; mission and command. Looking at this now, I made a grave error. Mission command cannot be broken apart. They are bound and move together.

So what, then, is mission command?  At the surface level mission command is leadership. In order to be an effective mission commander you have to be a leader. In being a good leader you build an environment which nourishes the quantities of mission  command: unit cohesion through trust, shared understanding, clear intent, exercise developed initiative, use of mission orders, and accepting prudent risk.  While these concepts may seem abstract at first, they are things we naturally acknowledge. The mission command paradigm simply redirects our focus to the qualities which are most important.

The development of my understanding mission command over the past few weeks has made me more aware of the expectations of the Army. Thankfully many of her demands are being fostered here at the Academy. Despite the attention the Academy dedicates to these areas, we as future officers can always improve. Dedicating myself to these principles (in reality just outlining good leadership qualities) will allow me to improve unit effectiveness and ability regardless of level. This enables a more efficient method accomplishing the mission -- the overall goal of mission command.”

I don't know what types of leaders these cadets will become, but hopefully I've been able to provide them with an understanding that the most important building block in any relationship is the cornerstone of trust.

Leadership Counts!!

Jonathan Silk is a Major in the U.S. Army. He has served as a Cavalry Scout platoon leader , and has commanded both a Tank Company and an Infantry Company. He is currently an Academic Instructor and serving as the Operations Officer for the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning (CALDOL) at the United States Army Military Academy, West Point, NY. He was a recipient of the calendar year 2009 General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award.


  1. The corner stone of mission command is trust in subordinates which allows us to decentralize operation based on commander's intent. However, quite often, we as leaders grip the reigns tightly and demonstrate no trust. Though leaders that micromanage at times succeed, they degrade trust and do not foster mission command. These cadets understand the importance of properly employing mission command. How many of us in the military can say that we truly do?

  2. The author is correct in characterizing the cornerstone of mission command as Trust; without MUTUAL TRUST, it cannot succeed. However all 6 principles of Mission Command apply: (1) Build Cohesive Teams through Mutual Trust. (2)Create shared understanding. (3)Provide a clear Commander's Intent. (4)Exercise Disciplined Initiative. (5)Use Mission Orders. (6) Accept Prudent Risk. But as the Army CAPSTONE doctrine states in ADP 1 The Army and ADRP 1 The Army Profession, trust must be earned. That is true for the leader, the follower(s), and the team - demonstrated by your Character, Competence, and Commitment in your decisions and actions. This is not new doctrine. The US Army has espoused Mission Command as its official operational doctrine since at least 1905, yet GEN Martin Dempsey, as the CG TRADOC, reiterated its importance after his experience and observations as a combat commander in Iraq - where he saw junior leaders operating due to geographic separation from higher headquarters having to make decisions using their professional judgment, understanding the situation and their higher commander's intent. He knew that the best commanders always have practiced the philosophy of mission command. But he recognized that today's battlefield technology allowed senior commanders to micromanage subordinates, often degrading esprit de corps and effectiveness and certainly inhibiting trust, shared understanding, communications, and creating animosity and resentment between senior and subordinate. So as the TRADOC CG, he and LTG Bob Caslen, the Combined Arms Center CG (who is responsible for doctrine) ensured the Army would articulate those proven command leadership principles into Army doctrine (and institutionalized through PME schools and operationalized in units through realistic training). One note of caution: Not every subordinate has earned the trust of their commander, until that intangible event occurs, the commander will provide more detailed guidance, coaching, counseling, mentoring, supervision, and encouragement to that subordinate, perhaps withholding some degree of delegation of authority. So to the subordinate, it may appear that he or she is being micromanaged. No! The good commander is exercising caring leadership - developing the subordinate's competence, while assessing their character and commitment. Michael Toler, Consultant to the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic (

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