It is impossible to calculate all the factors in advance,some things one must leave to chance.He who is worried about everything will achieve nothing; however, he who is worried about nothing, deludes himself.
– Raimondo Montecuculi 1
Around 1810, after the battle of Jena when Napoleon achieved a sensational victory over the Prussians, the Prussian generals Scharnhorst and Gneisenau came to the conclusion that the commanders behind the battlefield, due to the „fog of war”, were unable to obtain an accurate view of what was really happening at the front and in the chaos of combat. Those who knew what was actually happening were actually the subordinate commanders and officers in the field.
As a battle is always plagued by uncertainties and is characterized by unforeseen situations,the Prussian generals tried to find a concept of planning – and a system of command – that would ensure flexibility. This system should ensure that commanders in the field would react quickly to the situation at hand and take the initiative independently and without first consulting High Command to exploit an unexpected favourable situation or respond immediately to an unfavourable development. The result of this requirement was the Auftragstaktik or, as it was later called by the Americans, mission oriented command.
The Auftragstaktik is not only about delegating decisions to subordinate commanders; it implies a whole set of measures that had to be developed during the implementation of this concept. In fact it required the whole German Army to be reorganized, a process comparable to „re-engineering the corporation” today.
Applying the Auftragstaktik meant that the supreme commander would formulate the broad goals that had to be achieved by the officers in the field and that he gave a relatively large amount of latitude in the manner the desired goals were to be achieved. In other words: the goals were known, what had to be achieved was known, but how they should be achieved was left to the subordinate commanders.
This system of command and its closely related Command Doctrine was a far cry from the rigid, hierarchic and bureaucratic Befehlstaktik of that time. This new form of planning and its command doctrine was perfected by von Moltke the Elder, who in the nineteenth century embedded it deeply into the organization of the German Army.
Von Moltke devised a system in which General Staff officers – steeped in a common philosophy – would be able to coordinate the actions of their units almost instinctively, without the need for specific orders from high commanders. The core idea behind this reorganization was decentralization of command structure in order to achieve greater centralization of forces on the battlefield by tactical manoeuvre (flexibility). By exploiting modern innovations such as railroads and the telegraph, Moltke hoped to increase this effect and bring even greater numbers of troops to bear at crucial junctures.
As Moltke himself put it:
„An order shall contain everything that a commander cannot do by himself, but nothing else”
To implement this concept the Germans understood that first officers and men should be trained before they could carry it out successfully. This took years to implement because the idea has to cascade down to the lowest subaltern, the sergeant.
The characteristic of the Auftragstaktik, therefore, was the great amount of attention given, during the training of officers and men, to quickly assess and judge developments during the battle and how to grasp the initiative.
A result of this system of „overall” or „mission oriented” planning was that tactical decisions for the greater part could be left to the operational level and so the desired flexibility was achieved. Furthermore, battle orders could be short with a remorseless concentration on essentials because the more detailed planning of actions could be left to the commanders in the field 2.
Auftragstaktik is a policy concept that assumes the willingness to delegate. This concept,however, places high demands on the organization. It can only be successfully implemented when a (business) organization can meet the following conditions:
o Be able to formulate its goals clearly and keep to the essentials;
o Have well-trained officers and sub commanders (managers), able to understand the intention of the high command (the CEO);
o Have well-trained officers and sub commanders (managers), able to judge the
o situation quickly and opt to take the initiative;
o A willingness to cooperate;
o Have a transparent organizational structure;
o Have a good communication structure;
o Possess a shared standardized system by which „frontline” situations are evaluated.
In those days the delegation of the responsibility for the tactical conduct during battle by sub commanders was not en vogue.
This is one of the reasons why, at the introduction of this concept, the training of officers and men in these new ideas became of paramount importance to the Germans.
In present business organizations the training of middle management in these ideas, and giving them the freedom to act accordingly, is quite often neglected. The common practice is that taking the initiative is permitted as long as it is successful. If it’s not successful, then, at the very least, demotion can be expected. By contrast, in the German Army taking the initiative – whatever the result – was appreciated but not taking the initiative was punished!
This attitude of higher command ensured that officers and men dared to take the initiative in any situation and, as was shown, to the benefit of the German Army’s goals. A German author wrote the following words in 1906, and they are still valid today 3:
„We have no use for soldiers without a will of their own who will obey their leaders
unconditionally. We need self-confident men [and women] who use their whole
intelligence and personality on behalf of the senior commander’s intent.”
Another example of this attitude are the instructions for German Paratroopers:
„You must grasp the full meaning of an operation so that, should your leader fall by the way, you can carry it out with coolness and caution.”
The above illustrates that:
o The Germans even instructed lower ranks completely about the objective of an operation.
o They expect that even the lower ranks are able to lead.
o They have trained their men to do that.
The conclusion is that over the years the Germans forged and implemented a successful and distinctive combat concept. Because they lost the war, interest in this German concept was also lost.
Business management focused on the Anglo-American method of central, hierarchic planning and tight control cycles („red tape”). This of course also influenced the manner in which strategic planning developed in corporations. This kind of planning can be applied in a stable environment. But when in the sixties and seventies the business environment became more turbulent it was discovered that this form of bureaucratic strategic long term planning was inadequate to counter the often fast and unpredictable changes in the environment.
For the dynamic corporate environment of today, success depends on flexibility, i.e. how quickly managers of the business units and the professionals at the basis of the organization are able to respond to the unforeseen and take the initiative (without losing sight of the strategic goals and the essentials). It is the methods of planning, command and delegation, as developed by the German military, which give the best promise of achieving this (innovative) flexibility.
A comparable business management concept is that of empowerment as propagated in the nineties. In its practical application often too little attention was given to the specific training of middle management, teaching them how to analyze and judge the actual situation while giving them the freedom to act accordingly, a core aspect of the concept’s successful implementation by the German Army.
1. Raimondo Montecuculi was a brilliant Austrian General and military intellectual (1609-1680). He defeated the morenumerous Turks in 1644 and wrote several books on strategy, logistics and military conduct.
2. The command manual for D-Day was 133 pages, the German order to invade Holland only 4 pages! See further Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power, Greenwood Press 1982, Chapter 12 Conclusions.
3. Ernst van den Bergh, Die seelischen Werte im Frieden und im Kriege (Ethical values in peace and war), a study in Militär-Wochenblatt 91 (Military weekly) (91, 1906), Beiheft 6 (insert 6), 233, as quoted in Leistenschneider, 95.