Updated: Jul 22, 2021
This guest post comes from CPT Kelvin Riddle, an active duty Army Captain who just recently finished commanding an organization on the Korean Peninsula. In it you’ll read about his lesson’s learned and thoughts on command. Though he focuses on the company level, these adroit lessons are relevant to all levels of leadership. We hope they spark a conversation for or start a transformation in you.
Company command is known to be one of the most challenging and demanding experiences of an Army Captain’s career. There is no textbook answer to prepare a leader for command as each leader has varying levels of self-developmental needs, operational experience, and institutional training. Having successfully commanded a company, on the ever-dynamic Korean Peninsula, I have learned a myriad of important yet fundamental lessons that I will continue to hone as I progress in my career. Since most of what I am sharing is not considered groundbreaking, lets refer to it as “Riddology.” Grab some coffee and take a seat; let’s chat!
On Mission Command – Auftragstaktik Since the early 1980s, the US Army began the shift from detailed command to mission command (ADRP 6-0: Mission Command). The central idea behind mission command is based on the philosophy of auftragstaktik. I know what you are thinking – how do I pronounce auftragstaktik and what is it?
“The philosophy of Auftragstaktik is aimed at initiative of subordinates within and outside of the scope provided by the commander’s intent. While acting within the intent, in general, does not cause problems, acting in alteration of or opposite to given orders regularly will. Deviating from orders within the philosophy of Auftragstaktik is justified by the fundamental change of situation, or if acting upon a higher responsibility to the unit.”1
In essence, auftragstaktik is mission tactics that gravitates on a shared understanding of the commander’s intent to the lowest level of authority. Having this foreknowledge can enhance the understanding of the six principles of mission command. A large dose of secondhand content surrounding the philosophy of mission command can be confusing. So many have confidently expressed their abstract idea of what mission command means; however, you must read and internalize it for yourself. The six principles of mission command when internalized, will lead to a fundamental understanding of how to balance the science of command with the art of control. The ability to balance the science of control with the art of command is one of the cornerstone commanders need to ensure the success of the unit.
On Successfully Transitioning into Command
Fortunately, there are a plethora of tools and resources to assist leaders into transitioning into any organization or position of leadership. The tool I used in particular was the “Army Leader Transitions Handbook.”
I used this handbook as a guide and reference it often. I firmly believe the systems put in place within the first 120 days of company command create a pathway for either success or failure. By this, I mean the set standards regarding administrative systems, command supply discipline, maintenance, training, and leader development will continue to either plague your organization or enhance it.
A commander must define what is acceptable in those areas and communicate it in writing. After taking the guidon, continue to tailor expectations to the environment and unit culture. It is important to remember, though, that this book is a guide and not the elixir for every situation. Like most handbooks, the information here should be adapted to fit unique set of circumstances.
On Team Building
The old adage goes, “Soldiers do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I believe there is much wisdom in this saying. This is the quote that inspired me to invert the command structure or the “power pyramid” as referred to by John Maxwell in “Developing the Leader Within You 2.0.” A well-read leader will enter command understanding the assigned mission and equipment of the organization. Most will unlikely understand the human dynamics of the organization.
Immediately after assuming command, my foremost goal was to find out who my subordinates were, why they decided to serve, what they expected from their unit, and how I could help them achieve their aspirations. At my reception, I insisted on serving our chocolate ‘Team Cobra’ cake to each Soldier in the unit. In that moment, I spoke to each Soldier and started to establish rapport. Sure, I did not remember all of the conversation or all of them, but I was able to get a feel for the inherent humanity within my organization. Moreover, this moment was the genesis of trust and communication with my subordinates.
Critics would suggest that this idea sounds ‘mushy.’ Well, they are right. As a matter of fact, leadership can be as mushy as it is hard-edged – when charged to lead, I will tell you that there is a place for it all. Effective leaders know that in order to achieve organizational feat of any measure, they must first learn their people. This notion is rooted in the philosophy of transformational leadership. The core of an effective leader is his or her ability to authentically care. The results will undoubtedly engender a synergy within the organization to achieve results.
Qualities like trust, realistic training, integration of personnel, shared hardships, underwriting honest mistakes, and fair and impartial leadership coalesce to create solidarity in a team. However, these qualities of team building are only second to knowing your people.
On Balance of Career and Home
The balance between command, personal relationships, and spirituality is unequivocally a challenge that only increases with responsibility. The balancing act is continuous and requires practice each day. Given I commanded as a geographical bachelor, distance was a greater challenge. I saw it necessary to take inventory of my core values before entering command, because I recognized that command would inevitably stress my personal relationships. For me, those values included my faith, my family, and specific career goals.
I used tools to synchronize my wife’s calendar with my outlook so I wouldn’t miss important moments. There were even instances where I attended my son’s soccer games and my daughter’s gymnastics class via Facetime. I did things like calling my son’s soccer coach and thanking him for coaching my son. I routinely spent time with my wife each week via Facetime. Since I was 13-hours ahead, I was able to do these things at night. Nevertheless, I made it my business to balance and re-balance my time and energy towards those things that matter most. Command will sometimes feel like a vortex of chaos, but taking stock of values upfront and practicing the balancing act will maintain your personal centeredness.
On Professional Relationships
Our Army is one of the richest organizations on the entire planet. We are very fortunate to be outfitted with the best equipment and technology the world has to offer. In an institution where the finest equipment and technology only seems to get better with time what could be of more value? Relationships. In an Army where automation seems to be the way of the future—from autonomous drones to autonomous logistical operations to autonomous tanks—person to person relationships will not be automated in the foreseeable future.
As a company commander, I realized professional relationships with subordinates, peers, and superiors are critical in their own way and in time. Never miss a moment to help your fellow company commanders who are lacking equipment or nearing mission failure. If idle materiel is available that they need, sign it to them. If you have experienced a difficult situation and have lessons-learned, share it. If another’s unit is excelling in an area that your unit is struggling, take the other leader(s) to lunch and ask questions. If there is friction between you and your higher commanders, request an office call and get to the bottom of it. Develop a network of the key stakeholders on your installation; take an extra moment to understand him or her (e.g., the ammunition supply point civilian that every Soldier at every installation loathes to visit.)
Leadership and learning are multi-dimensional as well as multi-directional; lead and learn up, down, and horizontally. The lesson here is to do what is necessary to build relationships internally and externally. In doing so, you will have effectively become a person of value to many. Moreover, you will have the ability to leverage knowledge and resources that are otherwise beyond reach. Ultimately, you will find that your organization will often exceed standards, because of your relationships.
Effective leaders are followers. Followership, in general and without context, connotes inferiority. That is not what I am referring to here – I am referring to nested priorities.
Before taking the guidon, find time to understand the organization two levels up. Visualize the impact of the company within a larger context. Additionally, take time to read the brigade and battalion commanders’ command philosophies, vision statements and the annual training guidance. Knowing where the commander is moving the organization will establish the foundation of your priorities.
Often you will find yourself bombarded by priorities, flash operations orders, “must be done by COB” emails, phone calls and text messages. Moreover, each day you will inevitably discover that you have more tasks and taskings to fulfill than you have hours. Through it all, you must remain true to what is urgent and important. In general, do what is nested the most with the commander’s focus and take risk on things that exceed that parameter. The commander’s priorities are your priorities. For example, shifting priorities might look like a reenlistment ceremony mid-day just before a quarterly training brief and a serious incident occurs with one of your Soldiers. Having established priorities will enable fast thinking and intelligent action.
In real-time, it will feel like everything is important, but do not be fooled. I used tools like “The Eisenhower Matrix” or Steven Covey’s “Urgent-Important Matrix” featured in his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The tools can aid you in identifying where to focus from day to day.
These ideas are not all inclusive and honestly there are many more areas of company command perspectives I could’ve explored. I thought it was important to take a moment and share these insights for those who are seeking command and to strike dialogue with those who have successfully commanded at all levels. My time as a company commander was personally and professionally rewarding! There were high times and low times, but through it all I remained steadfast to my commitment to serve those that I was entrusted to lead. Whether it is the first or second company command, the responsibility should not be taken lightly. Command is a privilege and honor and one must hold it in high esteem. There are no guarantees that you will command again after company command, so enjoy it and strive to be the best servant leader that you can in that moment.
Sonnenberger, Martin. Initiative within the philosophy of Auftragstaktik : determining factors of the understanding of initiative in the German Army, 1806-1955 / by Martin Sonnenberger, Lieutenant Colonel (GS), German Army.