Mission Command and Army Bands

Mission Command. It just sounds cool. Like this picture.


It’s also the way the Army is supposed to conduct business. So, what is it? BLUF: It’s the name we’ve given to the thing that good leaders have done for a long time – exercise “mission command” rather than the stuffy and outdated “command and control.” Who does that anymore?!? Well…plenty of people. We call them “old school” leaders. Bad leaders? Those were your words, not mine.

In all seriousness, according to Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-0, mission command is “…the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”

No, really. That’s how we talk. So, what does that mean? Former Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno put it this way: “Mission command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution, using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent. Done well, it empowers agile and adaptive leaders to successfully operate under conditions of uncertainty, exploit fleeting opportunities, and most importantly, achieve unity of effort.” 

Got it? Good. Basically, the philosophy of mission command is: the commander gives Commander’s Intent, which tells his or her soldiers the Mission (what are we going to do); the Purpose (why are we doing this); the Key Tasks (what are the things we must do to accomplish the mission); and the End State (this is what mission success looks like). It’s about centralized planning, but decentralized execution – i.e., not micromanaging everything down to the soldier level. The idea is to give subordinates the goal, the general concept of the operations, some left and right limits, and then let the people executing the mission find the right way to accomplish it. In theory, this gives the soldiers on the ground the latitude to adapt to the flow of battle and take the initiative if an opportunity presents itself without having to ask for permission at every turn. For a hierarchical organization like the Army, this is not as easy as it sounds. You have to give enough guidance so that the mission is accomplished in accordance with your intent or you might end up with all hell breaking loose…

“I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done, and leave it free to execute in your own way.”

– GEN Ulysses Grant to MG Sherman before the 1864 campaign in which a “scorched earth” policy was used.

Ideally, mission command isn’t just something combat arms does so the soldier on the ground can effectively fight an ayssemtric threat with an agility not possible in a more structured command and control environment; but is something that can be applied to most if not all operations to a degree. That brings me to Army bands.

“Old school” band leaders often ran their bands like Toscanini – centralized planning and centralized execution: “This is the music we’re going to perform; this is how I want the music to be performed; this is how your part will be played to match my interpretation; and I will conduct everything.” As band officers, this mentality needn’t necessarily stop at the podium. “Draft a memo outlining X, Y, and Z for my signature…change this, this, and this; move that sentence there; word this like that…here, I’ll just write it.” The memo was fine the way it was, it just wasn’t exactly how you would have written it. What do you think will happen the next time you ask that person to draft something for you?

The application of mission command with Army bands begins by truly empowering NCOs; not saying you’re empowering NCOs but then taking away their authority at the decision point. The commander must provide Intent. He or she must set what the expectations are for the Music Performance Teams that the NCOS lead. If the standard is communicated and upheld, good NCOs will be the standard bearers. They must be allowed to make decisions for their ensembles. Monitor, observe, and provide guidance when necessary, but let leaders lead (and, as the commander, underwrite their honest mistakes). In practical terms that means giving the ensembles your intent for them, their left and right limits, then letting them do their thing. Then it’s a matter of ensuring that the standard of performance is upheld while providing input when appropriate to shape and mentor. How else will they get better?

When putting together a major performance like a holiday concert, instead of the officer putting together the show alone in his or her office, exercising mission command would entail providing NCOs an opportunity to be a part of the process by giving them intent and then seeing what they come up with that meets that intent. This is exactly what the Army School of Music is teaching its students – officers, warrant officers, NCOs, and our newest soldiers in AIT. 

I may have a thread or theme for the concert; I may have certain tunes I want to do, but then I go to my NCOs and tell them what I’m looking for and have them come up with the rest of the music to fill out the concert. It’ll probably be a better product and it’ll certainly encourage a more creative learning environment. This does not mean letting the NCOs steer the ship; that’s the commander’s job alone. But to stifle creativity while embarking on a creative endeavor is short-sighted, limiting, and ultimately not in the best interest of the soldiers or the unit.

Let people have a stake in the endeavor and help them unleash their creative potential. That, in my opinion, is mission command in the context of Army bands.

1 Comment

Filed under Army Bands

One response to “Mission Command and Army Bands

  1. Dan Dove

    Sorry I didn’t get to work with you past your early XO days at Monroe, Domingos. I think we would’ve worked well together. As we NCOs would say, it sounds like you “get it.”

    We worked like this during my last 2 years in the Army at FORSCOM, under the direction of Daniel Toven. Productions (notice I didn’t say concerts, there really is a difference) were put together by the collective, with Daniel having the final say, of course. Everyone from commander down to PFC were invited to be part of the process, and the best ideas often came from the lower enlisted. But being in an environment that encouraged creativity like that was a true joy, and we made some fantastic shows in the process.

    Working like this takes, first and foremost, a level of trust in your team that many old school leaders weren’t willing to allow, which stifles creativity, ignores professional development, and breeds content. Glad to see you recognize the advantages of trusting your people.

    Hope all is well for you in Korea, my friend.
    Dan Dove

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