What is your Command Philosophy?

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Eisenhower’s D-Day Message. Wonder what his command philosophy was during those times?

“The underlying philosophy of leaders has a significant impact on the way they relate to others, attempt to influence others, judge the actions of others, and make decisions affecting others. Most leadership theories, however, neglect this factor.

  • Steven J. Mayer, Ph.D., “Leadership Philosophy”

You are taking command next week. What do you want to accomplish? Do you have any idea? Your past company commanders said they had a philosophy but you never saw it in practice. Another wrote a group of words on the board to guide the company but it stopped at that point. Other company commanders have appeared as natural leaders and guided their companies effectively. How do you model your approach after those that make company command appear effortless? How do you communicate your intent for the long-term success of the company without confusing people or making promises that can never come to fruition?

Every soon-to-be company commander struggles with one aspect before taking command: what will my leadership philosophy be? Phrased a different way, what is my command philosophy? This one piece is the guiding vision for the entire organization and gives insight for the subordinates into how the boss works; yet, the Army does not give a clear-cut example of how this looks. Instead, the army says leadership is “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization” (ADP 6-22). This broad, but vague, definition of leadership serves to inform the soon-to-be company commander of what their role in the organization is supposed to be but does not give them an example upon which to build. Instead, the young officer relies on experiences and the advice of those they consider mentors in order to develop their own personal command philosophy. Below is one such venture by a young captain graduating from a career course with the knowledge that he will take command soon.

The pre-command captain begins the conversation by detailing his current understanding of a command philosophy by stating, “My Command Philosophy encompasses three main tenets within the overall umbrella of honor. If a Soldier is honorable, he will act accordingly. Honor is the basis of all other values. Honor means that a Soldier does what is right all the time, not just when it is easy. The focus is on seeing honor applied in the following ways: Leadership by example, taking care of Soldiers, and integrity.”

The captain continues by explaining his first tenet, leadership by example, “The Warrior Ethos states that we will always place the mission first. We receive missions from higher, which are challenging and may take us to the limits of our capacity. The mission, whatever it is, gives us goals to work to accomplish. If we frame everything within the framework of the mission, it gives us a shared goal. Whatever the mission, its ultimate success is predicated on our attitude and commitment. I commit to always be honest with you, my subordinate leaders, but once we are given a task, I will give 100% to exceed the standards to accomplish that mission. If we as leaders commit to each other and to the mission, and raise our Soldiers up with us, there is no limit to what we can accomplish as a team. For the same reason, it is incumbent on each of us as leaders, Soldiers, and adults to take responsibility for our own success. PT, weapons proficiency, and MOS proficiency are, first, an individual’s responsibility. You must commit to your own success. Those who commit to their own success can call me at any hour of the day or night and I will do all in my power to help you. I will invest as much in you as you invest in yourself.”

The captain moves into the next tenet of his philosophy, taking care of Soldiers by stating, “Taking care of Soldiers is not just a catchphrase. We as leaders must follow this mantra. If we are truly committed to our Soldiers, and invested in their lives, there is no need to have mandatory barracks checks, sexual assault prevention training, or equal opportunity training. We owe Soldiers nothing less that the fullest commitment to their success. None of our Soldiers should fear for their safety. Each one of our Soldiers has the potential to be a leader. In addition, we must ask ourselves what we can do to set them up for success in the future. Taking care of Soldiers goes far beyond letting them go early or getting them out of tasks. It means a true investment in their future. Taking care of Soldiers is not just encouraging them to take college courses, but offering to proofread their papers, or helping them study for tests. It is the Soldier’s responsibility to better him or herself in PT, in education, and in advancement. But, they should be absolutely confident that when they need help, we, as their leaders, will make every possible effort to support them.”

Finally, the captain finishes with the last tenet, integrity, “Do the right thing when no one is watching. If you are a hand receipt holder, it is incumbent on you to know, down to the smallest component, what every end item is, as well as to have your hand receipts and shortage annexes up to date. We do not cut corners. Laziness just makes more work for the whole organization. We take care of each other by doing things right the first time so a repeating of the assigned task does not occur.”

At the conclusion of his command philosophy, the captain asks for advice. He believes he has created a good starting point but his experience is limited. His questions for refinement are 1. Should it be more concise? 2. Could it be expanded? 3. What key difficulties arise during the beginning of command? And 4. What other helpful advice for command could be included?

Based upon these questions and a reading of the philosophy, a more experienced company commander responded with the following comments and concerning the questions posed by the new commander and posed some additional questions for the new commander to consider. “A philosophy is akin to a company vision. How do you see the company being able to accomplish day to day operations or in the future? Your philosophy needs to contain both breadth and depth so that the point is clear and does so in a concise manner. Other areas to expand for this command philosophy are trust, leader development, and creating shared understanding.

Trust is the foundation of mission command. A company commander must set clear left and right limits as well as establishing an end state. Within the established parameters, the commander must then trust the subordinate to execute the mission. A commander has to trust that those subordinates will accomplish the mission even if they will not accomplish it in exactly the same way the commander would. Additionally, the subordinates need to trust that if they make a mistake it will not end their career. Trust is a two way street. Commanders must trust subordinates to accomplish their tasks and they need to trust the commander to support them and their development through careful and thoughtful analysis of any mistakes or shortfalls.

Commanders owe it to their subordinates to develop them and giving tasks is a method to achieve this development. Failure is an acceptable, and even expected, part of development. Learning from mistakes in training ensures that subordinates have the experience to build on in combat. This kind of development occurs on a daily basis whether the subordinates realize it or not. Finally, be honest with subordinates so that they can be honest with the command team. Allow subordinates a stake in the development of an idea such that two-way communication is developed and the subordinates will provide original solutions as well as honest feedback. This last aspect flows into one of the primary challenges faced by all new commanders, building cohesive teams.

Commanders have a short time frame in regards to command and may want to change a lot. Rather than implementing change quickly and angering subordinates, a commander should take a measured approach that includes listening to the subordinates, observing the situation, and making sound decisions off actual data instead of hearsay or rumor. Important to this process of change are the change agents within the company. Individuals such as a platoon sergeant may be the change agents and true power players within the company. By giving those individuals a voice, creating buy-in with the change, and then allowing them to execute, these individuals may create ownership in the change process. By gaining this buy-in and ownership, the commander prevents becoming Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill every day only to see it roll down again.”

With the vagueness of the Army definition of leadership most likely created on purpose in order to give the leader an ability to develop their philosophy in a more personal manner, is this enough advice for this young captain or should there be more included? At the end of the day, if faced with the same request for input, what would your response be?

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