What is auftragstaktik? How is it different from the conventional command-central military culture?
Auftragstaktik is a form of military tactic where the emphasis is on the outcome of a battle as opposed to the specifics involved in executing it. This military philosophy has been inspired by the German general Moltke who believed that flexibility and critical thinking are more important in a battle than following protocol and commands.
Keep reading to learn about the principle of auftragstaktik and how it has been implemented in military and business contexts.
General Moltke: Auftragstaktik
In the late 1800s, a German general named Helmuth von Moltke wrote extensively about the importance of uncertainty in battle. He understood that even the most well-considered plan can’t eliminate the element of chance, and that humans in particular are unpredictable. This means that trying to predict anything beyond the first contact with an opposing force is pointless because there is such a low chance that the enemy will behave the way you expect. In today’s military, this idea is expressed as “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”
This idea presents a problem for a military general: If you can only plan up to the beginning of a battle—not through or beyond it—how do you prepare your troops? Moltke’s response to this question was to shape the environment of German military academies into the direct opposite of the American model. Where American soldiers focused exclusively on military matters and learned by rote memorization, German soldiers were expected to become students of critical thinking. Their curriculum expanded beyond military matters into the liberal arts, and every class provided opportunities for discussion and debate.
In Moltke’s view, strict hierarchy prevents effective teamwork in any organization. German military academies took this to heart—soldiers were expected to respectfully challenge anyone with whom they disagreed, including instructors and even generals. In many modern and historic military training programs, criticizing a superior like that would be a punishable offense.
The emphasis on critical thinking and thoughtful discussion both in the classroom and on the training field was a key part of German military strategy because it allowed soldiers to gain superior officers’ trust. On the battlefield, that trust translated to the freedom to question and even directly disobey orders if a soldier felt the situation demanded it. That freedom was to be used only in exceptional circumstances, but it was explicitly allowed because German officers prioritized smart, adaptive battle strategy over obedience. If it is impossible to plan beyond contact with the enemy, the best strategy is to have soldiers who can come up with a new plan on the spot.
That policy highlights an important point: Lengthy deliberation is good for the planning stage, but in battle, action is key. This is where the traditional image of the confident, decisive leader comes into play. In battle, there is no time to weigh the odds, and good leaders are those who can make confident decisions even without having all the information.
Rise and Fall of the Wehrmacht
General Moltke’s ideas were readily adopted by the Wehrmacht and expressed through the principle of Auftragstaktik, or “mission command.” Essentially, military success requires smart decision-making from both the bottom and the top of the organization. Generals and commanders were responsible for understanding the bigger picture and creating effective overall strategies. Soldiers on the ground were responsible for responding quickly and effectively to an evolving battle situation. This balance of power allowed the German military to maximize strategy and flexibility.
In practice, Auftragstaktik gave superior officers the authority to tell subordinates what to do, but not how to do it. Rather than being directed through a series of predetermined steps, German soldiers were told the next step of the plan and trusted to make it happen in whatever way the situation required. This gave soldiers the flexibility to adapt to unexpected changes without needing to wait for new orders from mission commanders.
This approach created a German military that successfully invaded most of Europe during World War II, despite being heavily outnumbered. Their ultimate failure was largely the result of the commander-in-chief, Adolf Hitler, abandoning Moltke’s ideas and seizing total personal control over all military operations. German soldiers no longer had the freedom to make their own decisions and adapt to changing circumstances. This shift had dire consequences and ultimately paved the way for an Allied victory during the invasion of Normandy. German tanks were aware of the invasion but were forbidden to move until instructed by their commander-in-chief (who was fast asleep at the time).
Auftragstaktik in American Military and Business Contexts
When executed correctly, Auftragstaktik is a solid military strategy that creates strong leaders and intelligent soldiers. But the deviation from a philosophy of unquestioning obedience made the ideas behind Auftragstaktik taboo in the American military, even before World War II and the associations with Nazi Germany.
Even the young soldier and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower was threatened with a court-martial for publishing an article in a military newspaper on the shortcomings of current army tank technology. This experience stuck with Eisenhower, who went on to adopt a Moltke-like attitude as Commander in Chief. He assumed personal responsibility for faults in overall military strategy and relied heavily on trusted officers to question and criticize his judgment if they disagreed.
The U.S. military didn’t embrace the driving ideas of Auftragstaktik until the 1980s. Today, there is much more tolerance for independent thinking, albeit on a somewhat informal basis. For example, General David Petraeus took the initiative to improvise new strategies while serving as a commander in northern Iraq and informed his superiors after the fact rather than asking for permission beforehand. The gamble paid off when insurgent violence plummeted in the area under his command.
Petraeus was eventually given command over all U.S. military operations in Iraq. His focus on mental flexibility led to fundamental changes in Army training procedures. For example, typical training drills that involved real weapons were scripted for safety purposes. Petraeus felt these scripted exercises failed to prepare soldiers for the unpredictable conditions of real combat and demanded the development of training protocols that exposed officers to uncertainty without compromising safety. He also encouraged officers to attend graduate school to encounter new styles of thinking and grapple with opposing ideas.
Military traditionalists criticized Petraeus’s unique leadership style because they believed soldiers should be “doers, not thinkers.” But this is a false dichotomy. Strong leaders are skilled thinkers who can consider all aspects of a problem and also know when it’s time to stop thinking and act. In many ways, business leaders face the same dilemmas as military leaders, and many companies have been similarly slow to see the value in an Auftragstaktik-style approach. But the lower stakes of a corporate setting have allowed many businesses to experiment with leadership styles, and massively successful corporations like Amazon, Walmart, and 3M have adopted many of Moltke’s original principles.
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