“Gen Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff from 1857 until his retirement in 1888, often related a story to junior members of his staff that described the essence of the German system of command.
Following a battle, Prince Frederick Karl took a major aside and proceeded to reprimand the young officer for a tactical mistake. The major responded that he was following an order issued to him from a superior officer, which constituted the word of the king himself. The prince responded in kind:
“His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when not to obey his orders.” – Auftragstaktik: The Basis for Modern Military Command
The above passage describes a system of command and philosophy of leadership that, when employed successfully, separates the great, consistently successful teams from the unsuccessful and flashes in the pan.
This philosophy relies on the basis that commanders are encouraged and expected to use their own initiative in battle. This went to the point where he could go as far as to ignore or knowingly violate a superior’s officer for the success of the mission. To illustrate the origins and how this came about, we have to go far back in history.
(Continue reading below…)
The day was October 16, 1806. Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor of France, the keenest military mind on the European continent and conqueror of near all that he saw before him. He battled the British, Russians, Austro-Hungarians and Prussians, winning twin emphatic victories at Jena and Auerstedt against the latter.
His armies were a well-oiled machine with commands and communications being given clearly and precisely, all working in unison and acting out the machinations of their emperor’s brilliant mind.
The armies that faced him were also held by the strict orders of battle of their time and were deeply entrenched in tradition and discipline. The thoughts of flogging and capital punishment were always on the soldier’s mind, keeping him in line and making him nothing more than a piece on a chessboard.
Lives were decided by the two men on either side of the table and the Prussians realised that fighting like this was no longer an option. Pitting a general against a general would not work. Napoleon was too keen a mind to be defeated in this way. The battles at Jena and Auerstedt finally brought the hammer home. They had to do something.
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Young Prussian officers present at these battles were hamstrung by the rigidity and static nature of their command structure. Battle is a fluid motion and the plans made at the general staff level handed down all the way to the rank and file were strict and unquestionable, lest they be shot or punished for treason.
As Napoleon’s officers either moved position, were pressed in certain areas or advanced too far, there were weaknesses that appeared to the Prussian captains and junior officers on the ground.
They were weaknesses that their command structure left them unable to take. By the time requests had been made to the higher command to attack these weaknesses, Napoleon had rectified them and the opportunity was lost. Losing these moments of initiative cost them the battle. What arose from these defeats, was the beginning of a concept known as Auftragstaktik.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 25, 2019
Aufragstaktik proved so successful that to this day it is the principle philosophy of command in the German army. The same philosophy has been adopted by the British, American, Canadian and Israeli armed forces to name a few, yet not fully realised in many others.
Seven questions are the epitome of this philosophy. In the combat estimate, soldiers are briefed for a platoon level assault in an order process where they learn everything about enemy forces. Soldiers are informed of enemy weapons, numbers, morale, positions, areas of dead ground, any reinforcements there might be in the area, communications and whether they will have support or IDF (mortar fire and artillery)… the list goes on.
You then focus on yourself and the terrain: what are your numbers, support, roles, limitations, areas of operation, political and cultural repercussions and capabilities. You assign objectives to each section, timelines, signals for supporting one another and much more. Once done, every soldier also is reminded of the one and two ups (boss and bosses’ boss) intent and the intended effect your actions must have to complete your mission.
What it boils down to is initiative. The above is a simple breakdown of the orders process, but what it does is allow the front line officers the freedom and autonomy to develop a plan based on real-time information and empower them to act as the battle is developing.
We only know the intent that must be achieved: how they achieve that intent is down to their own decision making. On top of that, all NCOs and soldiers are aware of the mission and if the boss goes down, what effects and objectives they will need to achieve to complete it.
The NCOs also have the trust to plan down to the section level, making their own plans to achieve the objectives given by the platoon commander. While they follow the framework of the mission, the NCO can modify his orders from the platoon commander and even ignore them due to real-time factors if it means achieving the commander’s overall intent.
A general planning a mission of this complexity miles from the ground would never work. Orders mapped out well in advance and so far detached in time and detail will seldom net you victory. What will happen and what you have planned are often worlds apart.
This is how the Prussians beat Napoleon in the end. Their junior officers were trained to a much higher standard and drilled in decision making, self-confidence and tactical training.
They were able to recognise and granted autonomy to exploit weaknesses of their own accord in real-time without having to request orders. Knowing only a simple objective and what they possessed, they were able to use all the imagination and tools at their disposal to operate independently to achieve that.
This approach netted the Germans their sensational military campaign against France in 1940. The generals had given their officers on a brigade level to reach the coast and to surround the British Expeditionary Force. Brigade level orders on a regimental level and the precision only increases as you go down the chain.
“The higher the authority, the shorter and more general will the orders be. The next lower command adds what further precision appears necessary. The detail of execution is left to the verbal order, to the command. Each thereby retains freedom of action and decision within his authority” – Karl Bernhard von Moltke
It was not unusual for German lieutenants of 22 years old to be able to successfully lead battalions with more efficiency and success than far more senior British and American counterparts due to this command philosophy.
One of the battles instrumental to the Battle of France, the capture of Fortress Eben-Emael, was commanded by a lieutenant of the paratroopers. In other armies of the time, such a task would have been planned ahead of time to minutiae execution by a general or brigadier.
These orders would have been followed that had no room or freedom to accommodate the real-time factors that would have materialised. As such, following them to the letter would likely lead to the complete failure of the mission.
The German advance through France happened so quickly that they only stopped due to resupply runs. All of this was because their officers had a simple objective.
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The when and how were handled by the junior officers. They operated independently of the higher command’s restrictions and bureaucracy, working on the Prussian combat dynamics of mobility and speed. The result was a decisive victory.
Applications to Rugby
As can be seen, Auftragstaktik is the pre-eminent form of combat leadership. Yet, its applications to rugby have been realised by very few teams. Rod MacQueen, Graham Henry and Clive Woodward were the first proponents of empowering players. The model espoused by them was based on the fact that rugby is a fluid game and, like the Germans, the general can only do so much.
The coach can provide the training, the resources and the knowledge with which to target the opposition, but once the kick-off takes place they are little more than an interested spectator. These coaches ensured roles were assigned within the team. Leadership groups of senior players were created who looked after the off-field standards of the team and ensured the upkeep of the team culture.
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— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 25, 2019
This ensured the players knew their roles, the standards they were expected to maintain, as well as the infrastructure and team ethos that was key to providing the elite environment in which their players could thrive. On-field roles in leadership were also assigned to specialists, whose roles within the team were well known to all players within the team. This meant there was no confusion in the hierarchy.
If a random player screamed a defensive call but the defence captain had observed and countermanded him, they knew whose order to follow. This way they were able to make the best tactical decisions at that moment in time. These specialists within the teams were consistently being updated by a stream of information from all players, clearly and concisely provided to them. This way they were able to recognise positioning and the layout of the field, allowing them the best judgement.
There were also secondary players in leadership roles in attack and defence, meaning it wasn’t all down to one person in decision making, but someone else could step in if in a better position and countermand the order. This was coupled with buy-in by the players into their styles of play as well. The coaches insisted that their teams took ownership of their game plans and the development of them.
This ensured the players understood the effect their style of play would have and why they played that way, as well as knowing the details and dynamics of it inside out. This developed a pride for each team in their style of play, as well as performing a style that no one else would ever be able to play as good as them.
Changes in Culture
Auftragstaktik is now starting to show pre-eminence in rugby circles whereas previously this was not the case.
The firm structures of Warrenball, held by the Welsh rugby team for so long, were put firmly in place but did not allow for spur of the moment decision making. Much like the hamstrung Prussians, they may have seen the opportunity, but the structure, pre-determined roles and rigidness of their system prevented them from taking it.
Eddie Jones, the man who famously screamed at a centre for scoring a try off set-piece when the ball was meant to go to the winger, was the embodiment of normaltaktiker, the generals who wanted to order the individual movements of their soldiers to the last detail.
This has softened following the developments of his coaching career to where now he has intentionally not turned up to training sessions, wanting to see the reactions of his players and whether they have the leadership structures and initiative to work independently without him and the coaching staff.
This has resulted in England’s sessions becoming more team and captain led, with the game plan, team talks and changes in strategy in Test matches coming from the players rather than the staff.
With New Zealand, we only have to look at the ways they seamlessly change into different game plans at Test and Super Rugby level. All players are able to use their intellect and judgement to adapt best on the field to ever-changing circumstances.
This leads us to Australia.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 24, 2019
Australia have not been drilled along these lines and they didn’t ignore Michael Cheika’s orders. The Wallabies have some brilliant talent and sensational players but running the ball out of your own 22 is a foolhardy, idiotic idea, especially against a strong defensive side like England.
It showed naivety at best and downright stubbornness and selfishness as worst. Post-match, Cheika tried to palm off his tactics as attacking rugby. In games such as this, smart rugby is the way to go and his philosophy gave England all the field position they could want. In doing this, Australia strangled themselves.
You can bet the next coach will come with a game plan, but he will come with a lot of changes and licence to improve the culture and leadership within this Wallabies team as their inability to adapt or switch it up cost them any chance of winning the game.
This change is a cultural change and not a quick one. Opening the players up to responsibility and leadership makes better people and as Henry once famously said, “Better people make better All Blacks”.
Developing a culture based around this has been shown in military circles to be the pre-eminent way towards high performance in battle. The traits and mentality needed to succeed in both combat and rugby are not too dissimilar.
If coaches can rid themselves of their own ego and allow and encourage players to input into the team style of play, the way they run their team and hold themselves will go a long way to developing self-sufficiency and independence on the field.
The dictatorial approach of some coaches is no longer enough.
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