The Culture of Mission Command Seen Through the Lens of a Century of Australian Military Operations

This book review of Trust and Leadership comes from Luc Pigeon, with Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC). The review is his opinion and does not reflect an opinion of the DRDC.

Nowadays, mission command is mentioned in almost every new discussion of military concepts. Paradoxically, it remains subject to interpretation and obscure in its applicability for many. Is it a process or a culture? Is it a buzzword or is it there to last? How could this tangibly affect the conduct of operations?

Mission command is not a newcomer in the art of military command. Among others, Napoleon Bonaparte successfully employed mission command while facets are also perceptible in some of Genghis Khan’s campaigns’ tours de force. The world as it is today forces military organizations to improve and adapt. Mission command provides insights to such achievement.

Skillfully, Trust and Leadership enlightens the reader with regard to the nature of mission command that has made it a secret ingredient of many successful military operations. To do so, the reader is walked along the path of a century of Australian military operations from the Australian Imperial Force of World War I to the recent campaigns in Afghanistan and in Australia’s Queensland natural disaster relief. Every chapter, in chronological order—WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Somalia, East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Australia’s Queensland—puts forward a specific dimension of mission command.

An Australian soldier is mid-run on the cover of Trust and Leadership (out Nov 2020 from the UNG Press)
Cover design by Corey Parson

From these practical examples, readers can build their own understanding of mission command and create a perspective on how it can be applied successfully in their own reality. It is a strength of Trust and Leadership that it avoids proposing mission command is a silver bullet. Both the advantages it offers and the difficulties it underlies are discussed. Of particular interest, the chapter written by Chris Smith (Chapter 10) provides a first-hand account and analysis of the difficulties he encountered employing mission command as a commanding officer in Afghanistan. His reflections alone on the meaning of trust versus command responsibilities makes it worth reading this book. He insists on the need to avoid putting the notions of trust and control in opposition to one another and suggests the essentiality of placing responsibility at the core of mission command.

Trust and Leadership positions mission command as a culture rather than just as a technique or process, a culture that goes beyond the individuals and in which the actions of a force are driven by this force’s goals. The book remains tangible, nonetheless, thanks to the examples that make it understandable, simultaneously showing its applicability and benefits.

Although it discusses a complex topic, Trust and Leadership is easy to read. The content is well balanced between historical events—which will prove to be of great value both in discovery and revisiting—and its solid analysis of the mission command culture. It therefore merits the complete attention of everyone interested in military studies or leadership in general. Beyond the military domain, anyone interested in the structure of organizations, their efficiency, and their ability to adapt to change will gain valuable insights from this book.

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About Jillian Murphy

Jillian Murphy is the Assistant Managing Editor of the UNG Press. She is a UNG alumna, class of 2016.

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