Mission Command: Why Your School Should Be More Like The Military

Disclaimer: I am wholly unqualified to discuss this. But I do think it’s interesting. With that out of the way, let’s proceed.

I am now in week three of my Masters in Educational Leadership. I am also two weeks behind in the readings.

But… in my week one readings I encountered a long list of leadership styles and philosophies. One of those was “Mission Command”. No discussion of what it was, no definition. Just two words I recognised strung together in a way I hadn’t seen before.

So I googled.

What is Mission Command?

Mission Command is the way leadership is done in the army. Here’s what my current understanding is.

  1. The commander tells their subordinate the objectives and the constraints they are operating in.
  2. The subordinate devises a plan for achieving this objective.
  3. The subordinate “back briefs” the commander, who then provides approval.
  4. The subordinate tells their subordinates what their objectives and constraints are.
  5. This continues on down the chain of command.
  6. The plan is executed, and all parties are free to deviate from initial plans, within mission constraints.

This style of leadership makes perfect sense for what the military does. It’s a massive organisation where no one person can understand all the conditions on the ground. Layer upon layer of leadership needs to rely on those below them to have the expertise to get the job done.

This will definitely work in schools too.

I asked John Catterson (@jfcatto, teacher, podcaster and ex-grunt) about this and I quote:

“This avoids micromanagement and provides autonomy for each commander. Every level of command has the understanding of their ability and limitations and has the situational awareness to work most effectively at that level.”

Doesn’t this sound like the sort of school you want to work in? One where you know what your goals are and you are trusted to achieve them with your own particular set of skills?

John Catterson again:

“If you want to figure out the best way to do something, ask a digger to do it”

The Tenets of Mission Command

Depending on your source, you’ll find 5, 6 or 7 as the number of central tenets for Mission Command. I’m picking five as the magic number here and then relating them to a school environment.

  1. Build cohesive teams through mutual trust: As a head of department, how can we demonstrate that we trust the teachers in our department to get the job done? How can we show that we trust them to achieve the learning outcomes we want students to achieve? What can we do to earn the trust of our colleagues?
  2. Create shared understanding: In asking staff to get onboard with a new initiative we need to explain what it is we are trying to achieve. Perhaps more importantly, we need to explain WHY we’re trying to achieve it. An important step here is finding ways to allow staff an opportunity to demonstrate that they understand what we’re asking of them. Have you ever heard staff walk out of a staff meeting saying “Why are we doing this? What are we supposed to be doing?” That’s not what we want.
  3. Provide a clear commander’s intent: As a leader, we need to talk in terms of outcomes. We want grades to increase. We want students to engage more with extra-curricular activity. We want students to be less stressed. Don’t tell them what to do, tell them what to achieve.
  4. Exercise Disciplined Initiative: Now that you know what your leader wants you to achieve, take the initiative. If you see something in your department, curriculum, classroom that will aligns with your boss’s intent and you can enact it quickly, do it. “Disciplined” initiative is the name of the game though, don’t go too far off the deep end without calling command.
  5. Accept Prudent Risk: I once heard somebody say, “I’m not trying this new thing unless I’m certain it will improve student outcomes.” There are no certainties in life, and for any meaningful change to happen, calculated risks must be taken. But don’t worry, you have your commander’s intent, you have the trust of your leaders and your subordinates. You can take risks.

Final thought

I have spoken about this from a leadership point of view. Teachers leading teachers. But could mission-Command work in your classroom as well? In my last blog post, (written before I knew what mission command was) I spoke about giving students autonomy through mastery learning. I wonder if there are other ways we can have give students the autonomy and sense of purpose that Mission Command provides?

One comment

  1. Teachers Leading Teachers, sounds like a great name for … anything. #Branding
    I thought this was the gold standard all leaders were aiming for before they started micromanaging me (although I didn’t have a name for it).

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