Mission Command and the Human Element: Leveraging Understanding, Intent and Trust

As underwriters of global security, the U.S. Joint Force must be prepared to operate anywhere in the world and at any time (NSS, 2010). The current and potential range of tasks and partners, however, are overwhelming and provide the Joint Force with little mission or organizational stability.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, stated that the global environment within which the Joint Force operates is marked by hyper-change — an environment in which change and the pace of change continues to accelerate and which increases the potential for inter and intrastate conflict across multiple domains and geographic regions (Dempsey, 2012a).

It has been said that growth and change in the 21stCentury will be about one thousand times greater than change in the 20thCentury. This century, in fact, may see technology escape the ability of humans "to control it, forecast it, or predict its consequences" (Cornish, 2004, 12).

In such a dynamic environment, institutional and personal knowledge becomes dated quickly. The implication for senior Joint Force leaders is that each day they are removed from the tactical environment they become less aware of those things happening beyond their sphere of immediate interest. Strategic and operational leaders therefore leverage systems thinking to anticipate risks and opportunities that may be present in the future (Cornish, 2004).

Unfortunately, the ability to forecast events is extremely limited. Therefore, senior Joint Force leaders must inculcate the philosophy of mission command within the Joint Force to ensure the successful execution of the proposed operating concept of globally integrated operations as outlined in the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) (Dempsey, 2012c).

Globally integrated operations promote a way to project decisive force to meet the demands of the global security environment while enhancing awareness and decision-making at all echelons. In this operating concept, Joint Force elements, allies, and partners from around the world combine quickly with one another to integrate capabilities and expertise "across domains, echelons, geographic boundaries, and organizational affiliations" (Dempsey, 2012c, iii).

U.S., ally, and partner forces essentially form security networks that have far greater fluidity than is currently inherent within today’s joint and coalition forces. Operating in such an environment requires an equally fluid command philosophy. Mission command is such a philosophy and its strength lies in its three fundamental components: shared understanding, intent, and trust.

Tactical leaders and commanders currently operate on understanding, intent, and trust through mission-type orders and have been quite successful over the years operating in this manner. With that in mind, this essay proposes that mission command’s greatest benefits will not be realized at the tactical level, but rather at the strategic and operational levels. It is at these two higher levels of war that the success of globally integrated operations will be determined and where the mission command philosophy is most needed.

Mission command must be instituted through the human elements of shared understanding, intent, and trust so that senior Joint Force leaders can aid and facilitate decision-making and operations at the tactical level. This essay supports this thesis by providing a brief overview of the strategic environment and the need for globally integrated operations. Next a discussion of leadership and command is conducted to frame the command philosophy properly. Finally, mission command and its components of shared understanding, intent, and trust are presented.

The Strategic Environment and Globally Integrated Operations

General Dempsey characterized the current global political environment as one shaped by increasingly robust digital communication and information networks (2012c). This characterization will likely remain true for the next three or four decades although influenced in unknown ways by the flow of capital, material, and people (Kojm, 2012). Transnational dynamics, facilitated by individual empowerment, a diffusion of state power, and wide access to lethal and disruptive technologies, will decouple traditional security challenges from places or regions around the world and mobilize them in unimaginable ways (Dempsey, 2012c).

The dynamicity and complexity of the global strategic environment make it extremely difficult to describe, let alone predict. The need to do both, however, is a prerequisite for security professionals, especially those with worldwide security responsibilities. Joint Force leaders and organizations must learn to anticipate and recognize coming change and respond appropriately and in a timely manner to influence, mitigate, or eliminate security challenges. The Joint Force must also do this with limited and potentially decreasing resources as well as with traditional and new allies and partners.

This type of strategic environment and the global security missions demanded of the Joint Force requires a flexible, agile, adaptable, and collaborative operating concept. An unpredictable and oftentimes hostile world necessitates collaboration that leverages a shared vision executed by cross-functional multinational teams. These cross-functional teams must allow individuals to create organizational structures and processes for which they are responsible and that meet the unique demands of the local environment (Mylen, 2002).

As described in the CCJO, the concept of globally integrated operations facilitates Joint Force operations through cross-functional teams in smaller-sized units that can form, perform, deform, and reform as the mission requires. The myriad combinations of missions and localities require adaptable and timely military responses leveraging allies and partners, prepositioned U.S. forces and resources, and expeditionary basing.

With a decreasing U.S. military force structure and fewer available resources, globally integrated operations recognizes the increased role that allies and partners must play and thus places a premium on these relationships. Leveraging allies’ and partners’ expertise and resources enable the Joint Force to be used more selectively for missions and roles for which it has singularly specific and unique capabilities. Equally important, however, are the opportunities to integrate the Joint Force in a broader variety of operational contexts with allies and partners.

The far-reaching security challenges of today and tomorrow invariably require the expertise and capabilities beyond that of the military instrument of national power alone. Thus, the Joint Force must integrate with other U.S. governmental agencies and regional stakeholders in local, collaborative, and participative decision-making (Dempsey, 2012c).

Leadership and Command

The ability to implement and execute globally integrated operations requires leaders who understand the multiple perspectives, national interests, authorities, and policies inherent within cross-functional and multinational teams. Globally integrated operations also require leaders who understand the complexities and continually changing contexts associated with operating across geographic boundaries and with U.S. and international partners.

With this in mind, globally integrated operations require Joint Force leaders to operate using the concept of unified action, which relies upon unity of effort, instead of the traditional unity of command concept. Unified action refers to the "synchronization, coordination, and/or integration of the activities of governmental and nongovernmental entities with military operations to achieve unity of effort" (JP 1, 2009, II-2). Unity of effort is the "coordination and cooperation toward common objectives, even if the participants are not necessarily part of the same command or organization…" (JP-1, 2009, GL-11).

In contrast, unity of command means that "all forces operate under a single [commander] with the requisite authority to direct all forces employed in pursuit of a common purpose" (JP-1, 2009, IV-1). Unity of command is the "sine qua non" of traditional military operations and is highly preferred by most military leaders. Unfortunately, globally integrated operations will rely far more often on unity of action than unity of command and, as such, a greater understanding of the differences between leadership and command is necessary to understand mission command in the context of globally integrated operations.

As the Chairman stated in his White Paper "America’s Military – A Profession of Arms, (Dempsey, 2012d) "leadership is the foundation of our profession" (3). Leadership and organizational communication expert Peter Northouse (2007) defines leadership as "a process by which an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal" (3). Thus, "leadership is the ability to influence people to a course of action through a collaborative or facilitative approach" to motivate or enable "them to achieve their highest potential and maximum performance" (Stagich, 2001, ix).

A leader is someone who is professionally competent, of high moral character, and serves as a role model. There are many leaders throughout all echelons of an organization (AFDD 1-1, 2011) although not all leaders are formally designated by rank, position, or authority.

In fact, most leaders are informal leaders who, acting as good subordinates, act decisively to execute the intent and purpose of superior leaders or formal commanders. As previously defined, a leader inspires and motivates people internal and external to the organization to facilitate action, "focus thinking, and shape decisions for the greater good of the organization’ (ADP 6-22, 2012, 1-1).

If leadership is "the art and science of motivating, influencing, and directing" (AFDD 1-1, 2011, 22) subordinates to achieve a common goals or accomplish a mission, command is the lawful authority invested within formal commanders over subordinates (JP 1, 2009). Although all leaders do not exercise command, all commanders are leaders (AFDD 1-1, 2011). As such, commanders have increased responsibilities that include "the leadership, authority, responsibility, and accountability for effectively using available resources and planning the employment of, organizing, directing, coordinating, and controlling military forces to accomplish assigned missions" (ADP 6-22, 2012, 2-3).

It is important to note that command is exercised typically only for assigned or attached forces (JP 1, 2009). When operating in the interagency or multinational context that globally integrated operations relies upon, most non-Department of Defense organizations and sovereign countries will rarely relinquish command of their forces (JP 3-16, 2007). As such, the concept of unity of action puts the onus of mission command clearly in the realm of leadership as opposed to command.

Mission Command: Understanding, Intent, and Trust

The Chairman recently identified the need for leaders who are "adaptive, innovative, critical thinkers capable of operating in complex and unstructured environments" (Dempsey, 2012b, 6). This description best defines those commanders and leaders primarily executing operations in the tactical environment and operating "at the speed of the problem" (Dempsey, 2012a, 4). Leaders at the operational and strategic organizational levels support tactical operations, but unfortunately become increasingly distant from firsthand knowledge of the conditions and problems resident within the tactical environment.

When transitioning decision-making from the tactical level through the operational level to the strategic level, the environment, problems, trends, and tensions change accordingly. Although operational level leadership encompasses tactical level operations, the operational commander’s sphere of immediate influence decreases as span of control and responsibility increases (see Figure 1).

At the strategic and operational level, leaders must exhibit a "breadth of view, diverse perspectives, abstract reasoning, innovative thinking and be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty" (CJCSI 1800.01D, 2011, A-A-1 – A-A-2) far more than tactical leaders. Therefore, strategic and operational level leaders must spend significant amounts of time with mission partners leaving them little or no time to control subordinates directly as they may have done in their past (Luck, 2013).

With this background in mind, the Chairman has proposed mission command as the command philosophy best suited to implement and execute globally integrated operations. The effect of this philosophy on tactical commanders and leaders will be far less than for strategic or operational level leaders. Tactical commanders have operated on intent and mission-type orders for years.

Strategic and operational leaders, however, will find that the decentralization necessary to make globally integrated operations a success requires levels of discomfort far beyond current levels of tolerance (Dempsey, 2012a). This type of decentralization will rely upon the three attributes of mission command—shared understanding, intent, and trust—to be successful at the strategic and operational levels.

Mission command requires leaders who understand the strategic security environment, possess the requisite ability to cope with uncertainty, can anticipate change, and can execute operations on intent (Dempsey, 2012b). To fulfill these requirements, shared understanding must exist between seniors and their juniors.

Global security operations are complex problems (Jonassen, 2011), and it is only through shared understanding that intent can be understood and trust developed. Shared understanding provides the multiple perspectives necessary to develop a more comprehensive framework of the environment, problem, and any potential solutions (Luck, 2013).

There are three levels of understanding that can be discerned: description, prediction, and explanation. Description specifies the observed system in terms of physical attributes and relationships. Cognitive maps such PMESII (political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information) is an example of a descriptive construct. Prediction involves forecasting or projecting what will occur in a specific situation — typically as a result of an activity or action. Wargaming is an example of prediction. Explanation involves conjecture or inference regarding why something occurred (See Figure 2).

The three attributes of understanding form an iterative and complimentary relationship with the uncertainty that underpins most Joint operations. Uncertainty refers to an inability to predict or explain others’ behavior, feelings, attitudes, or values. When uncertainty is reduced, greater understanding is possible. Greater understanding, consisting of obtaining additional information, knowledge, comprehension, or interpretation, facilitates greater predictability.

Uncertainty can be reduced further by interacting with it more thereby enhancing description and prediction. In addition, another common cause of uncertainty is not with the environment itself, but rather with poorly defined expectations. The more expectations are defined, the more confidence there is in predicting behaviors or outcomes (Gudykunst & Kim, 2003).

Commanders are responsible to provide quality guidance and intent that links strategic direction to operational approaches to tactical action (Luck, 2013). Shared understanding consisting of description, prediction, and explanation enables the development of commander’s intent. Commander’s intent represents "the unifying idea that allows decentralized execution within centralized, overarching guidance. It is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the military end state. It provides focus for the staff and helps subordinate and supporting commanders to take actions without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned" (JP 1, 2009, IV-16).

In response to a complex and dynamic environment, Joint Force commanders decentralize execution through mission-type orders. Mission-type orders direct the performance of a task without the specificity to accomplish it.

Within these orders, the essential task and purpose is described, which provides "a clear statement of the action to be taken and the reason for doing so. The senior leaves the details of execution to the subordinate, allowing the freedom — and the obligation — to take whatever steps are necessary to deal with the changing situation. This freedom of action encourages initiative" (JP 1, 2009, IV-16).

Trust is defined as "a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another" (Avolio et al., 2004, 810). As applied to mission command, trust informs the execution of intent and must be resident at every level of the Joint Force. In other words, trust is the intervening variable that ties the independent variable, leadership, to the dependent variable, organizational success.

A lack of trust severely limits intent and understanding and hinders the ability of the Joint Force to operate effectively. For trust to have its most far-reaching effects, it must not only reside within individuals, but also within an organization’s culture(McCauley, 2013).

Mutual trust is shared confidence among commanders, subordinates, and partners. Trust takes time and must be earned and can be upheld through values and principles (ADP 6-0, 2012, 2). Given our projected need for superior speed in competitive cycles of decision-making, it is clear that the Joint Force of 2020 will operate at the speed of trust (Dempsey, 2012a, 6).

For globally integrated operations to work effectively, a high degree of mutual trust must exist. Trust among commanders and staffs expands the Joint Force "commander’s options and enhances flexibility, agility, and the freedom to take the initiative when conditions warrant. Mutual trust results from honest efforts to learn about and understand the capabilities that each member brings to the joint force, demonstrated competence, and planning and training together" (JP 1, 2009, IV-18).

At the strategic and operational levels, building and maintaining trust is a leader’s most important action needed to establish and exercise mission command and to achieve cross-functional synergy (McCauley, 2013). Senior Joint Force leaders must develop trust up, down, and across organizations to gain synergy with mission partners, enable mission type orders, and empower individuals.

At the operational and strategic levels, personal relationships are often equally or more important than command relationships in today’s complex interorganizational and multinational environment. These relationships have significant time implications, especially the time to build and maintain trust and relationships with stakeholders and new mission partners (Luck, 2013).


Globally integrated operations highlights that tomorrow’s security challenges are less technical than they are cultural or social. Effective mission command demands senior Joint Force leaders focus their efforts on building relationships with internal and external partners.

These relationships are needed to develop a shared understanding of the environment, problems, and operational approach as well as the development of clear intent. Trust and empowerment are natural outcomes of shared understanding and shared vision. Increased understanding of the environment, through description, prediction, and explanation, enhances certainty and reduces anxiety.

Leaders cannot function effectively unless they understand the context in which they are operating. In developing the concept of globally integrated operations, defining and differentiating mission command as it applies to the various levels of leadership and command is essential. Tactical leaders and commanders will function in much the same way they have in the past: operating on intent and mission-type orders. Mission command will have its most profound effect on strategic and operational leaders as senior leaders will find their knowledge of operations and the environment rapidly outdated, especially as operations occur in a highly decentralized manner.

For these leaders, mission command might be better termed "mission leadership." Senior leaders, by leveraging their instincts, intuition, and experience, inform, persuade, and guide tactical commanders. However, senior leaders—even those with command authorities—must refrain from the allure of technology and the subsequent tendency to over-control and over-centralize decision-making.

Technology must enable the warfighter to make intuitive decisions in a dynamic security environment and not serve as a micromanagement tool for senior leaders unwilling to demonstrate trust in their subordinates. Technology must be leveraged to facilitate the communication of information and knowledge to the organizational levels most appropriate for decision-making.

For this reason, mission command must be focused on the human elements of command and leadership, specifically at the strategic and operational levels, which, in turn, should enhance the tactical commander’s ability to accomplish their missions successfully.


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Some of the issues raised in this article will be discussed at IDGA's Mission Command summit in June. For more details, go to www.missioncommandevent.com