Mission command principles

May 26, 2024

Tom Godin


How the military’s mission command principles can improve leadership and management in AEC firms.

A long time ago, in places far, far away, I was a sailor in the U.S. Navy. I stay connected to the service through social media, and this quote from Admiral Lisa Franchetti, chief of naval operations, surfaced in my feed: “We will use the principles of mission command to empower leaders at all levels to operate in uncertain, complex, and rapidly changing environments, ready to take initiative and bold action with confidence.”

Readers of The Zweig Letter operate in uncertain, complex, and changing environments. Who doesn’t want to take initiative and bold action with confidence? I wasn’t familiar with “mission command” or its principles, though.

What are they? Is there something we can learn from the military to do our own jobs better? I dove in.

According to Joint Publication 3-0, mission command is “the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders.”


“Mission command is a philosophy centered on the art of command. The art of command is the creative and skillful use of authority, instincts, intuition, and experience in decision-making and leadership to enhance operational effectiveness. The art of command is supported by the science of control, the systems and procedures that improve a commander’s understanding and support the execution of missions. Effective joint commanders leverage both art and science; it is not one or the other,” according to the second edition of the “Insights and Best Practices Focus Paper” on mission command.

The “art of command” supported by the “science of control.” I can get my arms around this. Leadership and management. Relationships and dashboards. Doing the right things and doing things right.

Mission command has seven associated principles:

  • Competence
  • Mutual trust
  • Shared understanding
  • Commander’s intent
  • Mission orders
  • Disciplined initiative
  • Risk acceptance.

Our firms are businesses – not sports teams, families, or military units. Concepts and frameworks that work in those domains don’t always work in ours. (My attempt at running a triangle offense in an engineering firm did not go well.) But mission command principles apply well to AEC firms. Let’s take a look:

  • Competence and trust. Both are bedrock characteristics of healthy, effective teams. C-suites, studios, project teams, any team. There is abundant literature about trust in the business context. The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni is a personal favorite. Lencioni writes about the presence and importance of vulnerability-based trust, not behavior-based trust, inside leadership teams. Vulnerability-based trust is when team members feel safe enough to be open about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears, and behaviors. It’s about being comfortable showing vulnerability without fear of judgment, ridicule, or negative repercussions. Vulnerability-based trust is a necessary condition for robust, healthy communication; the type of communication that supports new ideas and innovation, problem solving, and conflict resolution.
  • Shared understanding, commander’s intent, and mission orders. Leaders and their teams need to have a common, fact-based understanding of what is happening inside and outside. They need to understand their firm’s mission, vision, values, and strategy. They need to have access to the same information and a common lens through which the information is processed.
    In a business context, “commander’s intent” translates to providing clear, concise, and actionable objectives and expectations to the people or groups who need those things.
    Mission orders are clear but provide flexibility. “You know our intention and our expectations. Now go do that inside this box bounded by company policy, strategy (and your team’s role in it), and budget. How you play inside the box is up to you.”
  • Initiative and risk. In business, taking calculated risks is essential for growth and innovation. Leaders must encourage and support prudent risk-taking. They must provide frameworks that their teams can use to evaluate risk and reward. They must tolerate the mistakes and poor outcomes that occur – infrequently, one hopes – from even good process. And they need to put in place mechanisms to learn (and adapt) from both successes and failures.

Evaluating your readiness to empower your teams begins with asking and answering these four questions. If you answer “no,” then you need to stop and work to get to “yes.”

  1. Is my leadership team working productively together on a solid foundation of vulnerability-based trust?
  2. Do we have good information and is it widely shared?
  3. Have we made our intentions, our objectives, and our expectations clear?
  4. Have we torpedoed any chance of success by refusing to accept the risk that comes with our teams operating with disciplined initiative?

I hid in this article three clues to the branch of the Navy I served in. Email me when you’ve got the answer. And please get in touch with me if you want to talk about how the art of command and the science of control are in play in your own firm, about your readiness to give mission orders, or if you have a sea story to share. 

Tom Godin is a consultant at Zweig Group and director of the firm’s strategy group.  He can be contacted at tgodin@zweiggroup.com or 703.213.9689.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.