Tag Archives: Senior Leader Education

Sustaining an Intellectual Overmatch: Management Education for Our Naval Warfighters

By Dr. Mie Augier, Major Sean F. X. Barrett, Dr. Nick Dew, and Dr. Gail Fann Thomas

“The 21st Century demands American officers be far better educated and more capable of directing and integrating the Nation’s military instrument.” –Developing Today’s Joint Officer for Tomorrow’s Ways of War1

“The challenges of the twenty first century require holistic approaches to the changing character of conflict.” –Education for Seapower2


The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s May 2020 vision and guidance for Professional Military Education (PME) and talent management states, “There is more to sustaining a competitive advantage than acquiring hardware; we must gain and sustain an intellectual overmatch as well.”3 Developing flexible, agile minds was also a major theme a century ago in the Knox-King-Pye report, which helped the Navy steer away from an earlier technical education focus and toward broader skills that helped produce the ideas and leaders that proved critical in WWII.

Fast forward 100 years, and we have reached another inflection point. Numerous studies point to a geostrategic environment that has shifted radically in the past decade toward a future that is filled with uncertainty. The Navy and Marine Corps have realized that key aspects of our institutions, war planning, training, education, and resource management are inadequate to deter and, if necessary, win against our adversaries when the situation arises.

We should look at how management education, with its interdisciplinary and integrative focus, is an essential tool for developing future naval warfighters who have the skills to draw out peak performance from personnel and maximize the effectiveness of a wide range of naval organizations.4 Most people know from personal experience the difference that excellent management makes to organizational performance. A recent study shows that workers who moved from an average boss to a high-quality boss improved their productivity by 50 percent.5 Leaders with high-quality management skills can really make an impact. And while the context of management varies, the practice of management across a broad range of situations fundamentally requires a similar set of core skills.6 Given the need for the Navy team to perform at its peak under challenging circumstances, the Navy would be well-served by incorporating more management education into PME for both officers and enlisted sailors.

The Human Element in High-Performance Organizations

Our naval forces do not operate in a vacuum and are oftentimes nudged by larger economic and societal trends. Therefore, it is worth looking briefly at some general trends in U.S. management before turning to what specifically might be relevant to defense management.

Industries throughout the U.S. have been grappling with issues similar to those facing the naval services. Technology is changing faster and faster. Attracting, engaging, and retaining top talent is an unrelenting task. In response to these challenges, corporations have recognized the need to create learning organizations that support high performance. Evidence of these issues in the Navy is apparent in recently retired Vice Admiral Luke McCollum’s 2018 report in response to the 2017 U.S. Navy ship collisions. The report, Industry Best Practices & Learning Culture – The Competitive Advantage of a Learning Culture, provided a series of findings after surveying 30 Navy-relevant corporations to learn how they build and sustain high-performing organizations. Human factors topped the list. 

The most important component of building a learning culture is inculcating these “human factors” into the organization. High-performance and mission effectiveness are dependent on the humanistic aspects of employees, teams, and leaders. This people-centric perspective dominates high-performing organizations.7

This human-oriented theme has long been recognized by our naval leaders. Admiral Arleigh Burke clearly understood the importance of developing the Navy’s leaders:

“There is one element in the profession of arms that transcends all others in importance; this is the human element. No matter what the weapons of the future may be, no matter how they are to be employed in war or international diplomacy, man will still be the most important factor in naval operations.”8

More recently, the Joint Chiefs emphasized the human factor in their May 2020 report:

“All graduates must possess critical and creative thinking skills, emotional intelligence, and effective written, verbal and visual communication skills to support the development and implementation of strategies and complex operations.”9

Given the centrality of the human element to our naval success, we must understand how to manage it well. This involves a shift in the kinds of skills, capabilities, attitudes, and values at the center of PME. Two central issues stand out.

An increasing need for generalist skills in an uncertain world. In his book, Range, David Epstein claims that cognitive flexibility is increasingly important in today’s world. Training in specific tools and techniques is efficient for mastering repetitive, well-structured problems. However, a world full of uncertainty, ambiguity, and ill-structured problems requires more diverse skills and knowledge (i.e., range and flexibility). Cognitive flexibility manifests in the ability to transfer knowledge between domains and apply knowledge to new situations, which is increasingly important in today’s specialized world. Teaching broad concepts rather than specific information is more advantageous to developing this ability, as well as instilling a broad intellectual preparedness and the ability for ongoing learning. Warfighters need to learn how to think rather than what to think about. As the Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon cautioned, “What we must avoid above all is designing technologically sophisticated hammers and then wandering around to find nails that we can hit with them.”10 An ability to think abstractly can be capitalized on across a range of problems as opposed to specific skills that are limited to particular types of problems. Thus, instruction focused on helping students make connections is more conducive to learning and later achievement than focusing on formulas and procedures.11 Such skills are very relevant to warfighters where there is a high need for flexibility and taking initiative in executing operational orders.

An explicit focus on soft skills. Operating effectively in a world in which technology has connected individuals and organizations more than ever requires warfighters with sophisticated soft skills in addition to technological expertise. The President of the Naval Postgraduate School, Vice Admiral Ann E. Rondeau, USN (ret.), explains, “Employers today require the whole package when looking for people to hire and join their teams… They want individuals who have developed intangible skills not necessarily listed as part of a certificate or degree.”12 Today’s reality requires warfighters to have the soft skills necessary to manage organizational ecosystems where leaders do not necessarily wield formal authority but instead must build mutually aligned communities. As Richard Straub writes in the June 2019 Harvard Business Review, “To succeed in the era of platforms and partnerships, managers will need to change practice on many levels…Both practitioners and scholars can begin by dispensing with mechanistic, industrial-age models of inputs, processes, and outputs. They will have to take a more dynamic, organic, and evolutionary view of how organizations’ capacities grow and can be cultivated.”13 Soft skills have thus emerged as a key requirement for managing the performance of ecosystems of organizations.”14

By identifying the Navy’s requirements for high-quality management skills among its warfighters, we can invest in PME that equips naval warfighters with the skills they really need to lead a wide range of naval organizations to high performance.

Management Education for Seapower

Given the need for superior generalist and soft skills to match the challenges of the strategic environment the Navy faces, management education provides many key opportunities for warfighters to develop the right intellectual abilities. Some of the most relevant themes and approaches include the following:

Educating minds to be prepared for the unexpected. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, who spoke at the Naval Postgraduate School’s first virtual SECNAV Guest Lecture, stated, “We live now in a tremendous time of great uncertainty and even greater ambiguity. We’re facing and will face a completely new, and in many ways unknown, reality where nothing will be the same in the future.”15 Management approaches and education can help in this instance. Management education is centrally concerned with anticipating and adapting to change. It develops proactive problem-solving skills. While the ability to analyze known problems using optimizing techniques has a place, it is important for the Navy also to focus on developing warfighters with skills in thinking through ambiguous and changing situations.16

Leading warfighting organizations to become more agile through change and transformation. In their May 2020 report, the Joint Chiefs observed, “We cannot simply rely upon mass or the best technology…Our job is to learn how to apply our capabilities better and more creatively.”17 Admiral Mullen similarly emphasized the importance of leading change.18 However, change is not easy. For example, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in his memoir, Duty, that the greatest challenge he faced was changing organizations. Any change, to be effective, must be understood and communicated by people to be implemented in our organizations. In the DoD, this becomes even more complicated because it involves government civilians, military personnel, and contractors, and requires leading across generational divides and a diverse workforce. Given these complexities, warfighters need to use evidence-based approaches on how to best lead change.19

Excelling in communication skills. An intelligent workforce knows how to communicate clearly. Kline’s “Owl Speaks to Lion” humorously describes the detrimental results when an analyst does not know how to translate his findings adequately for the vice admiral who requires the results to make an important decision. Such skills are taught and honed over time and experience. One critical communication skill that must be fostered is writing. The writing process hones one’s thinking and helps one discover the real problem, define the root causes of the problem, and describe the costs and benefits of various courses of action.20

Building exemplary people skills. As the Department of the Navy’s Education for Seapower report explains, “[N]aval leaders must be just as ready to…solve a social problem below decks or in the platoon” as they are “to move against the enemy.”21 Research shows that emotional intelligence, coaching, and feedback upward, downward, and horizontally are key to high performing organizations. And these skills are not “one and done.” Each level of leadership presents new challenges concerning the types and complexity of the problems encountered and the number of people one leads. Social skills are developmental and change over the life of the leader. Additionally, there is evidence that leaders’ skills are directly related to retention. Most have heard the adage, “Employees don’t leave their organization; they leave their managers.”22 Good bosses not only contribute to the high performance of their employees but also increase employee retention because workers quit bad bosses.23

Understanding the influence of cultures. Complementary to (but different from) traditional international relations approaches, management and leadership education emphasize understanding how culture influences decision-making and how it affects collaboration. This is increasingly important to warfighters in an era featuring more and more “shared responsibility for security with other nations,” wherein “[s]trong global relationships and defense partnerships help mitigate the risks of…unpredictability.”24 Greater mutual understanding and mutual trust has enormous practical value in operational environments.

Developing meaningful organizational leadership skills. Vice Admiral Rondeau notes the essential connection between leaders and their organizations: “Leaders set the tone for the culture of their organizations. Meaning of the community, no matter how defined, becomes essential for interconnectedness, for bonding, and for understanding. It all has to do with the relationship between the organization and the individual.”25 The Navy’s PME institutions are uniquely positioned to develop warfighter skills in how to communicate and build essential interconnections using best practices from both civilian and military approaches to leadership development.

Building historical understanding to be decisive in the future. In an operational environment featuring a lack of combat deployments, we must increasingly turn to history to learn vicariously through others. The first President of Marine Corps University, Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, USMC (ret.), reflected, “I wanted to impart a simple lesson: a properly schooled officer never arrives on a battlefield for the first time, even if he has never actually trod the ground, if that officer has read wisely to acquire the wisdom of those who have experienced war in times past.”26 A champion of PME throughout his career in Congress, Representative Ike Skelton also recognized the importance of an appreciation for history: “I cannot stress this enough because a solid foundation in history gives perspective to the problems of the present. And a solid appreciation of history…will prepare students for the future.”27 Management education has long championed these kinds of vicarious learning through the extensive use of case studies. The case study approach heightens students’ sensitivity to history, context, and the particulars of a wide variety of situations. It gives warfighters a reservoir of examples to draw on as they face an unpredictable future.28

These elements of management education can help naval warfighters improve their personal performance and create a higher-performing Navy team that is better positioned to cope with the unpredictability of the future operating environment. In an era when investment dollars are at a premium, these management skills should be emphasized to a greater extent in PME because they provide high return on the Navy’s investments. Management skills can be applied across a wide range of situations and roles, and they typically stay relevant longer than technical skills. Management skills are particularly valuable for warfighters that advance into higher-level positions that usually involve more complex organizational and leadership challenges, and less technical know-how.29 A recent study by Harvard economists David Deming and Kadeem Noray puts it this way:

“[High]-ability workers choose STEM careers initially, but exit them over time…[This] is explained by differences across fields in the relative return to on-the-job learning. High ability workers are faster learners in all jobs. However, the relative return to ability is higher in careers that change less because learning gains accumulate”(emphasis added).30

Return on investment explains why management degrees (principally MBAs) dominate lists of the most popular graduate degrees, since individuals know that as their careers advance, the returns on graduate education favor developing strong management skills.31 Investing in management know-how is also less risky than investing in technical knowledge because the general applicability of management skills means they never abruptly go out of fashion.


“Whoever can make and implement his decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage. Decision making thus becomes a time-competitive process, and timeliness of decisions becomes essential to generating tempo. Timely decisions demand rapid thinking, with consideration limited to essential factors. We should spare no effort to accelerate our decision-making ability.” –FMFM 132

The changing geostrategic landscape demands changes in the skillsets of our naval leaders. Because of rapid advancements in technology, the human element will play an increasingly important factor in future operating environments. While tactical naval warfighters need to be technically savvy, operational-level warfighters must excel in the managerial skills needed to get peak performance out of the human element. Fundamentally, this is a general management challenge that applies across a wide range of Navy organizations. The Education for Seapower study and strategy, and the remarks of our naval leaders highlight that this entails a paradigm shift in our approach to PME. The Navy should invest more in management education to develop the intellectual and practical competencies required for excellence in naval warfighting.

Dr. Mie Augier is a professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School and a Founding Member of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI). She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett is an active duty Marine Corps intelligence officer. He is currently the operations officer for the Headquarters Marine Corps Directorate of Analytics & Performance Optimization.

Dr. Nick Dew is a professor at the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. His research is focused on entrepreneurial thinking and innovation in defense organizations.

Dr. Gail Fann Thomas is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. Her research focus is strategic communication and interorganizational collaboration.


1. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War: The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education & Talent Management, (Washington, DC: 2020), 2.

2. Department of the Navy, Education for Seapower (Washington, DC: 2019), 37.

3. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 2.

4. We acknowledge the difference between management and leadership. Both can be learned and contribute to peak performance for naval officers. See, for example, Bernard Bass, The Bass Handbook of Leadership:  Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); John Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review (Dec. 2001): 2; Abraham Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review (Jan. 2004): 1.

5. Kathryn L. Shaw, Bosses Matter: The Effects of Managers on Workers’ Performance: What Evidence Exists on Whether Bad Bosses Damage Workers’ Performance, Issue 456 (Bonn, Germany: IZA World of Labor, 2019).

6. Shaw, Bosses Matter.

7. Luke M. McCollum, Chief of Naval Reserve, Report on Engagement With Industry and the Competitive Advantage of Learning Culture, submitted to Secretary of the Navy, December 26, 2018.

8. As quoted in Rear Admiral P. Gardner Howe III, “Professionalism, Leader Development Key to Future,” Navy News Service, May 26, 2015, https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=87319.

9. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 4.

10. Herbert A. Simon, “What We Know About Learning,” Journal of Engineering Education 87, no. 4 (Oct. 1998): 346.

11. David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019).

12. Anne Rondeau, “Gen Eds – Are They Worth It?” HuffPost, March 29, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gen-eds-are-they-worth-it_b_58dbc980e4b0f087a3041ea4.

13. Richard Straub, “What Management Needs to Become in an Era of Ecosystems,” Harvard Business Review, June 5, 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/06/what-management-needs-to-become-in-an-era-of-ecosystems.

14. Such soft skills include communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving capability in complex, multidisciplinary situations. Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang note that “the vast majority of innovation and business development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations.” Similarly, Hagel and Brown observe the “productive friction” that results from transactions between companies. Strong interpersonal skills are needed for these results to manifest themselves. See Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson, and Sujin Jang, “Cross-Silo Leadership: How to Create More Value by Connecting Experts from Inside and Outside the Organization,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2019): 132; John Hagel III and John Seely Brown, “Difficult Business Partnerships Can Accelerate Innovation,” Harvard Business Review (Feb. 2005), https://hbr.org/2005/02/productive-friction-how-difficult-business-partnerships-can-accelerate-innovation.

15. Admiral Mike Mullen, USN(ret.), “SECNAV Guest Lecture” (lecture, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, May 19, 2020).

16. In the context of business, Jeff Bezos notes, “For every leader in the company, not just for me, there are decisions that can be made by analysis…These are the best kinds of decisions! They’re fact-based decisions. The great thing about fact-based decisions is that they overrule the hierarchy. The most junior person in the company can win an argument with the most senior person with a fact-based decision. Unfortunately, there’s this whole other set of decisions that you can’t ultimately boil down to a math problem.” As quoted in Bernard Girard, The Google Way: how One Company Is Revolutionizing Management As We Know It (San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press, Inc., 2009), 118.

17. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 3.

18. Michael Mullen, “Admiral Michael Mullen: Wharton Leadership Lecture,” October 27, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OD7AfDQhZbw.

19. Jeroen Stouten, Denise M. Rousseau, and David De Cremer, “Successful Organizational Change: Integrating the Management Practices and Scholarly Literatures,” Academy of Management Annals 12, no. 2 (2018): 752-788.

20. Carol Bekenkotter, “Writing and Problem Solving,” in Language Connections: Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, eds. T. Fulwiler and A. Young (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1982), 33-44.

21. Education for Seapower, 15.

22. Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington, and Adam Grant, “Why People Really Quit Their Jobs,” Harvard Business Review, January 11, 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-people-really-quit-their-jobs.

23. Shaw, Bosses Matter.

24. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, “SECNAV VECTOR 8,” January 24, 2020.

25. Ann E. Rondeau, “Identity in the Profession of Arms,” Joint Force Quarterly, no. 62 (3rd Quarter 2011): 11.

26. Paul K. Van Riper, “The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: An American Marine’s View,” in The Past As Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, eds. Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 53.

27. Ike Skelton, “JPME: Are We There Yet?” Military Review 72, no. 5 (May 1992): 2-9.

28. This is complementary to a pure war college perspective in that it blends history with organizations and a strategic lens and is thus more broadly applicable and provides greater understanding for students who can learn from the process of developing and applying analogies to different contexts.

29. See, for example, a survey of Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni, in National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018), 44-45.

30. David J. Deming and Kadeem Noray, “STEM Careers and the Changing Skill Requirements of Work,” Working Paper (June 2019), 3, https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/ddeming/files/dn_stem_june2019.pdf.

31. For example, see “Most Popular Graduate Degrees,” Master’s Programs Guide, accessed May 26, 2020, https://www.mastersprogramsguide.com/rankings/popular-masters-degrees/.

32. U.S. Marine Corps, FMFM 1: Warfighting (Washington, DC: 1989), 69.

Featured Image: Facilities of the U.S. Naval War College (U.S. Navy Photo by Jaima Fogg/Released)

Put the Commander back in Commander’s Intent

By Capt. Bill Shafley

Commander’s intent is the cornerstone of mission command.1 Yet, it remains a nebulous form of communication. In naval operations, commander’s intent is infrequently understandable, let alone actionable. It is filled with jargoned terms like purpose, method, key tasks, end state, critical information requirements (CCIRs), and acceptable level of risk (ALR). While these terms of reference create nicely formatted PowerPoint charts, the resultant commander’s intent is an exchange of sterile terms that inhibit rather than enable mission command. The processes that create commander’s intent are staff-centric. The thinking surrounding mission command is commander-centric.2 The resulting mismatch prevents shared awareness, slows disciplined initiative, and challenges a commander’s ability to take prudent risk.3

The Critical Role of Commander’s Intent

Not only can we get better at writing intent, we must do so in a manner that enables our up-echelon commanders to take advantage of the creativity, ingenuity, and style of their subordinate commanders. First, commanders must take back the responsibility for thinking about and crafting their own intent. The Naval Planning Process (NPP) has whittled away the commander’s role in the process of analyzing a mission, developing courses of action, and creating a written order, and the commander’s role must be restored.4 Second, commanders must personalize their intent and ensure it reflects their vision of the unfolding operation, not the staff’s version of same. Successful intent statements are plain language attempts at a commander’s visualization of the battle. It lays the foundation and provides the framework for all that unfolds.5 Finally, commanders need to be developed for effective leadership in an environment where mission command is the norm. In an era where communication is ubiquitous and spans of control are ever-growing, the information demands of higher headquarters grow as well. This is making it more and more challenging to define commander’s business.

Formalized opportunities for this type of development need to be programmed into the career path of senior leaders. Improving self-awareness, deepening critical thinking skills, and providing the opportunity to reflect upon the responsibilities of and best practices for executive decision making are a must. 

Essential Element of Mission Command

In a white paper issued by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, “The commander is the central figure in Mission Command.”6 Staffs have neither the authority nor the accountability to execute operations. From receipt of the mission to orders production, the commander is the pivot point in command and control.7 NPP is all about planning, while commander’s intent is about decision making.8

As Milan Vego stated, “There is possibly no greater responsibility for a commander but to make decisions on the employment of…combat forces.”9 Staffs need to get out of the commander’s intent business. The planning process gives them ample opportunity to inject their expertise into mission analysis and course of action (COA) development. The by-product of a staff generated commander’s intent is that it feeds off the data collected, analyzed, and presented to the commander. It flows from the steps of mission analysis and COA development and thereby gets structured in terms of tasks, end state, and risk. Even the most involved commander will find it challenging to weave intent into this staff process. A personal example brings these observations to the forefront.

During strike group work-ups, the destroyer squadron (DESRON) staff worked diligently in developing its planning bona-fides. We committed to five-paragraph orders that included commander’s intent, CCIRs, and ALR as a format to communicate our mission tasking with assigned units. With the notion that these orders to subordinate units would give them ample understanding of what needed to occur, the staff needed to make follow-on decisions and decide how much risk we as a team were willing to accept to accomplish the assigned mission.

As the commander, I spent time with my planners throughout the planning process in an attempt to ensure the strike group’s mission and how it fed the fleet end state was adequately captured. Our planners developed a Situation, Mission, Enemy Situation, Admin, Command and Signal (SMEAC) five-paragraph order format. Over the course of work-ups, we refined the manner in which we captured the friendly and enemy situations. We labored over purpose and method. We added critical information requirements and discussed risk. Yet, after each order, reflection, and modification of our format, I still found myself summarizing that data in plain language from commander to commander to ensure we could see the forest through the trees.

In hindsight, I have concluded that the order is for watchstanders and subordinate planners, the intent is for commanders. It was clear to me in practice that my planners could only get me so far. I needed to add clarity to their words and do it a manner that made sense to my subordinate commanders. Without that additional clarity, the shared awareness, disciplined initiative, and prudent risk-taking I was trying to achieve would remain opaque.    

Commander’s Personal Viewpoint

As Gen. Dempsey described it, “In mission command, the commander must understand the problem, envision the end state, and visualize the nature and design of the operation.”10 Intent should reflect a commander’s personal and deep understanding of the mission. It should describe how subordinate units and warfighting functions come together to bring about a desired effect against an enemy force. It is, in its purest form, visualization. It communicates in clear terms for subordinate commanders how the boundaries and conditions around which a battle ahead should unfold. Intent communicates roles, success, failure, and pace. It describes to subordinate commanders and their staffs what is required to make decisions and who can make them and even how to act in the absence of further orders. Milan Vego has offered rules of thumb in drafting intent, including writing it in the first person, ensure it reflects the personality of the commander, keep it short and memorable, and write clearly and precisely.11 Intent crafted in this manner is akin to scaffolding around a building. It is simple pieces simply put together.  

Reflecting again on recent personal experience, workups provide numerous opportunities for strike group and warfare commanders to use intent as a reflection of this deeper understanding of the mission. Multi-warfare, multi-phased operations that consume a common set of resources create opportunities for friction, early culmination, and priorities. Commanders know where the breaking point lies and must be able to communicate that eventuality in a manner that is meaningful. We can use these opportunities to apply Vego’s reminders and really dig into what the sequence of tactical operations presented mean to the afloat fighting force and its staying power in the fight. 

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz achieved this in his famous Calculated Risk letter in the days leading up to the Battle of Midway.12 In a mere five sentences, he was able to communicate when it was appropriate for Rear Admirals Frank J. Fletcher and Raymond A. Spruance to commit their forces to action.13 Nimitz artfully told his commanders simply to avoid attack unless you know you can win. With that clear direction in hand, they took off to Midway and made the decisions necessary to turn the tides of the war.

Faced with the same resource challenge associated with the commitment of combat power during our own work-ups, we struggle to make it that clear. Nimitz understood it from the strategic through the tactical level. Fletcher and Spruance were tactically competent, their strike forces ready to take the fight to the enemy. Nimitz was aware of how this engagement was sequenced in time and space throughout his area of operations. He knew what failure meant to the remainder of the campaign in terms of residual combat power. It is a very good example of simple pieces put together simply.

Raising Commander’s Intent Above the Noise

Modern commanders keep a lot of plates spinning. There are horizontal and vertical relationships to foster within and beyond the immediate organization. There are allies and partners that need to be brought into the fold and enabled. As a local commander looks to the fight two echelons up and attempts to tap into the developing situation, even with the best staffs and the most refined process, it gets harder and harder to know what decision lies ahead and how commanders must work together to solve them. The time available to think and reflect is at a premium. A commander’s span of control affects his ability to influence subordinates directly. These challenges impact a commander’s ability to craft clear and meaningful intent. Buying back time through efficient and effective communication and developing our senior leaders for these challenges can mitigate some of this risk.

In the age of digital communication, we are clobbered by the exchange of information. Commanders are robbed of the time to write something thoughtfully, let alone consume it, and provide feedback. This deprives commanders of one of the remaining meaningful tools they may have to communicate complexity in these dispersed environments. Most commanders will argue that time is the biggest challenge to their collective ability to think critically, reflect deeply, and cogently communicate important information.

As a best practice, deliberate use of the battle rhythm and the various voice and video tools available can alleviate some of these pressures. As the battle rhythm drives the commander’s decision cycle, it can be used to home in on and tease out information necessary to assess ongoing operations and guide follow-on ones. A well-crafted and judicious set of critical information requirements are similarly helpful.14 While voice, video, and data tools remain available, interaction between and amongst commanders virtually affords the opportunity to communicate intent broadly. Minutes count in these environments. Time spent preparing for the battle rhythm and time spent consuming the information it presents slices away at the cognitive power of commander and their staffs. It is important to make wise use of it. Strike group workups provide another example.

Time must be guarded, and information exchange streamlined and relevant for commanders to gain the advantage in this environment. Workups deliberately tax afloat staffs to stress test the processes used to generate orders to subordinate units. Time becomes the most precious commodity. As workups evolve, the pace at which the changes occur to the base plan deliberately create trade-offs and resource constraints. As the fluidity of the tactical situation evolves, the challenge becomes to recognize those trade-offs, communicate them to higher headquarters, and capture them in a running change to commander’s intent. This rapidly evolving tactical situation, inside of this complex communications environment quickly exposes the weaknesses of even the best set of staff processes.

I frequently found myself challenged to keep a broader view. My own personal time to think critically about what was occurring around me in time and space was taken away brief after brief. Fatigue was setting in from endless phone calls in the middle of the night about tactical information that I had asked for in pristinely written orders that turned out to be irrelevant. Despite a fantastic staff and what I thought were fairly refined processes, my ability to think critically, write cogently, and re-assess my intent remain challenged.

Learning to Personalize Intent

Leaders are swimming in information, striving to make sense of it, and looking for where best to apply scarce resources to best effect. We can’t just expect a senior leader to learn how to be effective in this environment through broadening headquarters assignments alone. There are few opportunities for group commanders to get the balance of education and training necessary to excel in these new environments.15 Exposure to additional leader development opportunities that stress self-awareness, critical thinking, and executive decision making are necessary investments for commanders. These should include board selected in-residence opportunities at senior service colleges, political-military think tank fellowships, and corporate leadership development courses. Pulling forward courses like CAPSTONE for newly selected flag officer down to the major command level would go a long way in developing our senior commanders. Every year counts in an officer’s career progression. Spending 18-24 months off the flight-line or away from the waterfront is a calculated risk in its own right. In residence education, and more than once perhaps, is a must to provide the time away from the “building” to develop. Opportunities like these would help senior officers with the process of growing into roles where doing at the tactical level is replaced with sensing, shaping, and communicating priorities and expectations synonymous with executive leadership.16


Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance are tall figures for senior leaders to emulate. Though the environments they commanded in were markedly different in many ways, they wrestled with many of the same issues we wrestle with today. Their formations were large and diffused over many miles. And while communication methods improved over time, they were still left with fog and friction to overcome.

But none of them sailed with the same retinue of staffs, processes, and methods of communication that we sail with today. Yet they still succeeded with crafting plans that synchronized forces in space and time, and in a manner that created effects that employed resources effectively and efficiently. Simple written notes to each other created a shared understanding of the mission at hand and the roles of the forces assigned.

Commanders today are disadvantaged in many ways. We have large staffs and refined processes. Our communications methods create opportunities for over-communicating and are bereft of the right information at the right time for the right decision. Doubling down on putting the commanders back in intent, providing them with the skills necessary to create time and space for thinking and reflection, and deepening our investment in their development will help lay the foundation for successful mission command.

Captain Bill Shafley is a career Surface Warfare Officer and currently serves as Commodore, Destroyer Squadron 26, and Sea Combat Commander for Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. He has served on both coasts and overseas in Asia and Europe. He is a graduate of the Naval War College’s Advanced Strategy Program and a designated Naval Strategist. These views are presented in a personal capacity.


1. For a good working definition of Mission Command, see ADRP 6-0 (2012).  p. 1-3.  https://usacac.army.mil/sites/default/files/misc/doctrine/CDG/cdg_resources/manuals/adrp/adrp6_0_new.pdf.

2. General Martin Dempsey (2012) “Mission Command White Paper, 03 APR 2012,” p. 4. https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Publications/missioncommandwhitepaper2012.pdf.

3. For the tenets of Mission Command, see ADRP 6-0 (2012).  p 2-1. 

4. Milan Vego, “The Bureaucratization of the Military Decision Making Process,” Joint Forces Quarterly: Vol 88, 1st Qtr 2018, p. 39. https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Publications/Article/1411771/the-bureaucratization-of-the-us-military-decisionmaking-process/  

5. Dempsey, “White Paper,” p. 4.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Vego, “Military Decision Making,” p. 35.

9. Ibid., 36.

10. Dempsey, “White Paper,”  p. 4.

11. Vego, “Military Decision Making,” p. 39.

12. Robert C. Rubel, “Deconstructing Nimitz’s Principle of Calculated Risk,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 68: No. 1, Article 4. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol68/iss1/4.

13. Ibid.

14. See my previous published work in CIMSEC regarding Information exchange and Mission Command. http://cimsec.org/the-currency-of-mission-command/43263.

15. SWOS Major Command and the Major Command Course at NLEC are the two predominant courses for SWO Major Commanders.  Over the course of 4 weeks, both courses do their best to provide these opportunities, but they are not enough.

16. See Heather Venerable’s recent work regarding education and Senior Officers.  http://cimsec.org/playing-to-win-crafting-a-creative-strategic-vision-for-maritime-superiority/.

Featured Image: POLARIS POINT, Guam (Feb. 7, 2020) Capt. Al Alarcon, prospective commanding officer of the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40), salutes sideboys as he arrives at a change of command ceremony aboard the ship. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Heather C. Wamsley/Released)