Most contemporary governments have been shaped by ideas that were ground-breaking, innovative and even revolutionary three centuries ago. In the meantime, science and technology on the one hand, and the lives of people on the other, have dramatically progressed, at least locally.
Together with innere Führung, the concept of Auftragstaktik forms the basis of the German military doctrine. While the former expression refers to the ethical commitment of soldiers, the latter – usually translated as “mission-oriented tactics” – is the guiding idea behind field operations. The German army has practised Auftragstaktik for 200 years, its origins going back to the Prussians’ need to reinvent their military doctrine after their defeat at Jena by Napoleon in 1806. As esoteric as it may appear, the concept expressed by the term Auftragstaktic is now an entrenched component of US military doctrine. After a first adoption of mission-orders in 1986 in the Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, Auftragstaktik has become one of the central concepts of the US army with the 2011 Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, Unified Land Operations.
The main idea of Auftragstaktik is that “commanders should give subordinates general directions of what was to be done, allowing them freedom to determine how to do it” (Nielsen 1987, 22).
After World War I, the German Army institutionally planned programmes for “developing leaders who were willing and able to take prudent, independent action to handle the unexpected” (Nielsen 1987, 23). The underlying reason was that the situations facing armies (or governments for that matter) are often unique and for the most part cannot be planned in advance in any meticulous detail; furthermore available information is typically incomplete and inaccurate, and often conflicting. Nevertheless, rapid decision-making is usually required. Therefore, “the German field service regulations stressed that the noblest quality of a leader was his willingness to assume responsibility” (Nielsen 1987, 24). For Auftragstaktik, the commander’s intent is the most important part of orders. Once the intent has been clearly stated, “the exercise of initiative by subordinates at all levels is considered essential” (Nielsen 1987, 27). Given that decisions are made under conditions of uncertainty and that each situation is unique, the idea of a perfect solution makes little sense. The duty of a leader is to make a rapid assessment, adopt a course of action as reasonably good as possible, and execute it decisively (Nielsen 1987, 24); “adequate, not perfect, solutions are sought” (Nielsen 1987, 30). Speed is more important than precision; a decent plan carried out immediately is superior to a superb plan carried out much later (Nielsen 1987, 24). To better understand Auftragstaktik, it should be noted that for the Germans, “a subordinate’s failure to act in the absence of orders was ‘illegal’ and at the very least inexcusable” (Silva 1999, 4). Finally, insofar as speed becomes mandatory, it is apparent that the traditional bureaucratic style recedes into the background, since “speed can result only from decentralized decision-making” (Nielsen 1987, 27).
The Auftragstaktik vision depends on both mutual trust and explicit training. The latter includes a set of simple, commonly accepted and understood operations concepts, providing “a common basis for action in the absence of orders”. In other words, Auftragstaktik is not something that can be adopted “by simple doctrinal decree” (Silva 1999, 2).
Two criteria were used to evaluate actions: the timeliness of a decision and the leader’s own justification for it (Silva 1999, 4). The former criterion evaluates the promptness of the action, the latter forces the leader to reflect on his own decisions: since he will have to explain them, imprudent decisions are less likely.
Three other aspects of Auftragstaktik deserve attention: firstly, commanders should be positioned in the front line, not safely ensconced in rear bunkers; secondly, commanders should be willing to assume responsibility and take risks in order to do the right thing at the right time; thirdly, it is explicitly admitted that orders can be disobeyed as long as the intent of the commander is maintained.
Auftragstaktik explains why networks and flat hierarchies alone are largely insufficient recipes for anticipatory governance. The problem is not that they are heading in the wrong direction, not at all. The underlying problem that Auftragstaktik makes clear is that there are stringent conditions for the successful implementation of Auftragstaktik, including dedicated training, shared rules, a high level of trust, and a willingness to assume responsibility. The obvious caveat is that, to put it mildly, it is unclear whether most executive branches have the capacities to implement those required features.
Nielsen, J.T. II, 1987. “Auftragstaktik: A Case for Decentralized Battle”, Parameters, September, 21-34.
Silva, J. L. 1999. “Auftragstaktik. Its Origin and Development”, Baltic Defense College.