Mission Leadership: 4 Principles For Creating Corporate Commandos

Much of the post-Petraeus talk has centered on the crisis of leadership in the military’s top echelons. But on the ground, innovation doesn’t spring from “command and control,” but from mission leadership, something commando-turned-consultant Damian McKinney can teach you a thing or two about.

Mission Leadership: 4 Principles For Creating Corporate Commandos

There seems to be a misconception that the military operates strictly by way of a rigid hierarchy, as if every last move on the frontline is orchestrated from atop the chain of command and those in the thick of it wait for the orders to trickle down. Not so–especially in the post-9/11 era of uncertainty.


In fact, when Damian McKinney entered the private sector after serving 18 years in British Royal Marines, the commando-turned-consultant found the business world to be more rigid than the military and that in many cases, corporate soldiers were not empowered to carry out their missions. Shake-ups like the financial crisis only served as a reason for leadership to tighten their grip. In the military, this top-down management system is referred to as “command and control.” You might call it micromanagement.

But the nature of conflict has changed significantly since the trench warfare of World War I and II. To reflect this, McKinney says a massive cultural shift took place among NATO forces during the 1980s. “Suddenly you’ve got this guy called a terrorist appearing. And a terrorist doesn’t operate like a conventional soldier,” says McKinney. “So you’ve got a situation where an 18- or 19-year-old is faced with this guy standing in front of him and he does not have time to go through the normal chain of command and ask for permission to do something. So we had to turn the system on its head.”

Turning the system on its head meant transitioning from command and control to mission command. With mission command, everyone is closely aligned to the mission, trained to make appropriate decisions, and given the trust and support from leadership to follow through. The mission dictates what is to be done, but the how is, to a greater extent, in the hands of those tasked with execution.

Upon entering the private sector, McKinney quickly saw an opportunity to bring mission command principles to corporate leadership. In 1999, he founded management consulting firm, McKinney Rogers, which counts among its clients Walmart, Bacardi, and HBO. And this year, he published The Commando Way: Better Business Execution. In a nutshell, McKinney thinks that commando thinking is ideally suited to meet an unstable, uncertain business world. And so as to avoid the proscriptive connotations of the term “mission command,” he calls it mission leadership. Here are its fundamentals.

Mission Leadership Requires A Deal
McKinney recalls an anecdote from 1990 when a young major was explaining to a mixed audience of generals and young Marines why adopting mission command was a good idea. A general stood up and expressed his doubts that those with less experience and a lower rank could make the critical decisions that this empowerment calls for. “One of these young Marines stood up and said, ‘With all due respect, general, you’re asking me with this new doctrine to make these big decisions. How can I trust you to support me?’”

Empowerment is a two-way street. If leadership can provide a clear mission, reports should be trusted to carry out that mission with greater independence. “Essentially, it’s a deal. You’re gonna say, “Look, guys, I need to make sure we’re really clear that you all understand why we are doing what we’re doing, what we need you to do, and the boundaries within which you have to operate. You’re going to hold yourself accountable for that. But in exchange, I have to give you the freedom.”


And McKinney has all the confidence that given the opportunity to operate with more discretion, employees will thrive. “If you do that, it never ceases to amaze me how successful people can be and how innovative and creative they can be.” He suggests taking a lesson from the military, where everyone is expected to be able to operate at one or two levels above their rank, because if someone falls in battle, there’s no time to run off to management training while the enemy waits. “It has to happen there and then. So it allows you to be thinking and operating at a very different level. And so you get high levels of performance with smaller groups of people.”

Have a Vision for Success
When McKinney resigned from the military in 1997 and decided to go into business, he fully expected to leave the military mindset behind. But on morning one as a consultant, he was listening to a project presentation and at lunch asked someone to explain the “end state” of the project. “In other words, what does success look like and why are we doing it? The senior partner looked at me and said, ‘You’ve clearly been in the military too long. There is no such thing as an end state.’” McKinney was shocked: “For me it’s just an excuse–poor planning and poor understanding of what success looks like.’”

McKinney’s takeaway was that leaders should be less concerned with controlling every aspect of a project, and more concerned with outlining a clear outcome for a mission. “There’s a very simple human need here: Tell me where we’re going, tell me what part you’d like me to play–in other words, a plan–tell me the boundaries within which you want me to operate, and then just let me go.”

McKinney continues: “The one I use always because I just think it’s the best I’ve ever come across, is Kennedy’s 1961 vision. Where he stood and he essentially said, we’re going to put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade. It was powerful because it was really simple. You could listen to it and see a man standing on the moon and I can see him coming back. It was also time-bound. So I say to all these companies, everyone needs a destination. So the starting point is what is the vision for success.”

Also, Have a Purpose
What most companies call a mission statement is actually their purpose, says McKinney, and most of them are poor. A strong purpose is something you can always come back to. It’s the reason why a company exists. “Having a purpose is really important because it defines who you are,” says McKinney. “Your visions may change over the years, but your purpose should never change.”

McKinney has worked extensively with Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart U.S. In his work with Walmart, the company’s purpose consistently informs their strategy. Their purpose, “Saving people money so they can live better,” actually led to the company’s game-changing $4 generic drug program. “What we did is start off by saying, ‘What effect can we have on medical health care in the U.S. that actually drives costs down? Where do people pay a lot of money? They pay on their prescriptions, particularly old people. Well, then why don’t we try to drive the price of that down?’ So we literally went from $20 to $4. A massive change. We did a whole vision and strategy over four days, we launched it a week later, we went right through the U.S. in four months, and we saved the average middle-aged patient $200 a month.”


Empowerment Leads to Innovation
The most basic tenet behind mission leadership that is once a mission is laid out to an individual or team with absolute clarity, they should be allowed to run with it. “An individual needs to know the what and the why–the mission, the boundaries within which they operate, and then frankly, you never tell somebody how to do their job. You should just let them go.”

McKinney cites Diageo, the maker of Johnnie Walker, Guinness, and Smirnoff, as one company that’s had success with mission leadership tactics. For example, as the tastes of vodka drinkers started to shift from Smirnoff to premium brands like Grey Goose, Diageo knew it needed to move into that space. At the time, Steve Wilson, was the global head of innovation with Diageo, (Wilson now serves as an advisor to the McKinney Rogers board), and he tasked his product development team to come up with a new brand.

The key to success was empowering the team to to be creative with their solution, says Wilson. “Empowerment where you actually tell people what you want them to do, but you don’t tell them how they’ve got to do it.” As a result, the company ended up with the very successful vodka brand, Ciroc, which is different from most vodkas in that it’s derived from grapes, rather than the more common grain alcohol.

Given the freedom, the team came up with the answer: “The answer was, ‘Let’s go do vodka that’s made from grapes.’ Why grapes? Quite simply, what is the most luxurious product that you can drink? It’s probably Champagne. So what about a vodka that’s made from Champagne grapes?”

Without telling the team exactly what to achieve, but sticking to the mission, Diageo ended up with a winning vodka. “You get a good mix of people,” says Wilson, “Tell them what it is you want them to do, tell them when you need it by, then you just give them the freedom. And they’ll make it happen.”

[Image: Flickr user Andrea Allen]