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“Mission Command is All Well and Good but Not on Graduation Day”: A Grounded Study into the ability of a Military, Hierarchical Organisation to put its Leadership Doctrine into Practice

Hartford, Carl Richard (2019) “Mission Command is All Well and Good but Not on Graduation Day”: A Grounded Study into the ability of a Military, Hierarchical Organisation to put its Leadership Doctrine into Practice. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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Abstract

This investigation is a grounded study into the ability of a military hierarchical organisation to employ its primary leadership philosophy in practice. The organisation in question is the Royal Air Force which for over three decades has sought to embed a leadership philosophy known as mission command into everyday organisational life in order to counter the increasing complexity and volatility of its external operating environment. Predicated on the concept of empowerment, the doctrine’s current treatment of mission command requires leaders at all levels of the organisation to devolve decision making and responsibility for task achievement down to the lowest practicable level in order to facilitate a culture of high tempo, innovative decision making that is able to take advantage the complex environment it finds itself operating in. In its simplest form it relies on the willingness of a superior to provide a subordinate with the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a task before standing back and leaving the ‘how’ (i.e. the execution) of the task for them to plan, execute and monitor themselves whilst remaining responsive to a superior’s direction. Despite the concept of mission having being firmly embedded within the RAF’s leadership doctrine and associated leadership training and development syllabi for over a decade and a half, there is a wealth of evidence, including the researcher’s own experiences of serving over 20 years with the RAF, to suggest that the organisation’s aim of embedding the concept within day-to-day organisational business has still yet to be realised. This study therefore sought to address the initial research question: ‘What if any gap exists between organisational members understanding of and their experience of the doctrinally espoused leadership philosophy known as mission command and what if any factors influence this?’ The theory has been developed by applying Strauss and Corbin’s version of grounded theory and the data has been drawn from 30 in-depth interviews across a cross-section of experienced RAF personnel as well as incorporating data drawn from the researcher’s own involvement in delivering and facilitating leadership conferences, workshops and discussions for over 500 RAF personnel during the period of the research. It examines the relationship between superior and subordinate and draws on individuals’ own interpretations of how organisational members go about achieving specific objectives and the extent to which they feel empowered to achieve their goals. In doing so it aims to identify any perceived gap between doctrine and practice together with the factors that either facilitate or inhibit the adoption of mission command within the organisation. In doing so, the thesis aims to enhance the literature regarding the contextual and organisational factors that influence the development of empowerment within an organisation as well as enhancing leadership practice within the organisation under study. The grounded data reveals that there is a widely held perception amongst RAF personnel that despite its apparent value and ongoing relevance to the organisation, mission command as presented in the doctrine has yet to be fully embraced within its day-to-day activities. In particular, it highlights that while the concept of mission command as a relational empowerment tool within certain critical contexts (e.g. operations) is deemed to occur, its employment as a motivational empowerment tool, as required by the doctrine, is at best sporadic. It also reveals that there are a number of themes, relationships and phenomena that play a major role in limiting the ability of the organisation to develop the motivational aspects of mission command. This is despite a recognition by the organisation of the organisational benefits this brings, particularly with regards to developing a culture of innovation and agility. Furthermore, the evidence also suggests that this lack of ability to employ mission command as a motivational empowerment tool across all aspects of organisational life is actually indicative of a prevalent organisational culture based on what Argyris & Schön (1974, 1978) term Model I Theories-in-use which facilitate organisational action strategies that seek to retain unilateral control of the environment based on an overriding desire to achieve the task at hand. With regards to the adoption of mission command, the research has identified that a premium placed on task focussed commander/manager behaviours, while facilitating mission command’s adoption as a relational empowerment tool, has limited its adoption as a motivational empowerment tool despite what the doctrine demands. The corresponding lack of ‘people focus’ is also illustrated by the low engagement scores across the MOD (e.g. AFCAS 2018) and poor assessments of the senior leadership’s engagement and ability of the organisation to deliver major change. There is also a general sense that once away from the operational space individual performance, risk taking and innovation is not valued at an organisational level as much as task delivery and process compliance despite the current organisational strategy (in addition to the doctrine) placing a strategic emphasis on ‘being able to reward, empower and motivate our people to unlock their full potential’ (RAF Strategy 2017, p.22). This thesis argues that an emphasis on the commander manager role plays a major role in influencing super-subordinate relationships within the organisation and identifies how several environmental and organisational factors can hinder the ability of both individuals and the organisation to actively challenge the prevalent culture in order to achieve the doctrine’s aim of embedding a more people focussed culture within the organisation that is predicated on the concept of motivational empowerment.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Leadership, Mission Command, Praxis, Metis, Techne
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Leeds University Business School
Depositing User: Carl CR Hartford
Date Deposited: 02 Mar 2020 10:05
Last Modified: 02 Mar 2020 10:05
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/25995

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