Saturday, April 3, 2010


Have you heard this term before -- “Auftragstaktik?” It sure is fun to say. Give it a try -- it is a mouthful! While you may not know the word (unless, of course, you are a student of German Army tactics), you are no doubt familiar with the concept. At least you should be.

Auftragstaktik is the German expression for “mission-oriented command.” It relies upon decentralized leadership and is the basis for decision-making at the lowest possible level, where the knowledge of the situation is always best.

Auftragstaktik requires a leader’s belief in a subordinate's ability to creatively solve problems without always having to approve every decision or explicitly direct each step. Key elements of this approach to leadership include:

-- Mutual trust among teammates based on each person's intimate personal knowledge of the capabilities of the others.
-- Repetitive training to reinforce confidence in the decision making capabilities of each other.
-- A willingness to act on the part of all leaders and...all followers.
-- Simple, sound fundamentals (policies, procedures, etc.).
-- Regular use of mission orders.

Key to this empowering approach to leadership is the use of these mission orders. If it is creative solutions that we seek, then we need to unleash people to join in the problem solving process. Leaders must avoid telling everyone how to address every assigned task. We don't always have to be the "smartest person in the room!"

Using mission orders, leaders focus on defining the problem to be solved and the parameters or criteria that they want in a solution. Focus on the why and the what – empower others to determine the how.

Taking the mission order approach for even the simplest tasks will develop the muscle density necessary for application to more challenging problems. That's the repetitive training piece. Empowering people to make decisions, trusting that they will do the right thing, accepting some failure in order to learn and grow -- that's the rest of this German Army leadership philosophy.

Lest we think this is some secret tactic that died with the Wehrmacht back in WWII, know that the US Army definitely embraces this leadership philosophy of Auftragstaktik. It is the basis for decentralized decision making. It is also what makes success possible with many sports teams, businesses, government agencies, and non-profits groups. So let's give it a more common English term. Let's call it...Leader Business.

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