Of Leadership, Sailboats, and Mission Command

An unconventional metaphor

I have a confession. I enjoy using doctrine in ways it isn't intended. Doctrine Man is one of my personal heroes. I like metaphorical story telling. Don’t understand? Let me explain.

So your daughter can’t find her favorite toy? Apply the Seven Fundamentals of Reconnaissance. Getting ready to coach your son’s Pop Warner football team? Whip out the Characteristics of the Offense and Defense as outlined in ADP 3–90. Negotiating for that raise with the boss? Then the four steps to Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield* may be just what you’re looking for.

*Note: I realize the link is to an outdated manual. FM 34–130 is still the most comprehensive IPB aid I have come across.

When I can figure out how to apply doctrine in a way it isn't originally intended AND get the double bonus of applying a metaphor that makes it easier to understand I get the same feeling as Double Rainbow Dude. More importantly, when I was an instructor I found it a sure-fire way for students to remember complex concepts.

The following is an adaptation of a presentation I gave in Atlanta at Rendezvous 2015 with the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning (CALDOL). It started as an idea in an airport terminal with help from a metaphor I have heard before within a different context from my friends Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack. It turned into a new way of thinking about how to deal with interpersonal relationships and Mission Command.

— — — — — —

Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 6–0, Mission Command, explains the six principles of the mission command philosophy.

  1. Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
An Overview of the Exercise of Mission Command, ADRP 6–0, Mission Command, March 2014

The level of trust affects how effective organizations are in creating a shared understanding and how willing leaders are to accept prudent risk. The level of acceptable risk can drive or stifle disciplined initiative and help guide three commander tasks and four staff tasks executed through the mission command warfighting function. The Commander’s Tasks are:

  1. Drive the operations process through the activities of understand, visualize, describe, direct, lead, and assess.

While there are other tasks conducted by both the commander and the staff, I want to focus specifically on the first commander task. Instead of driving the operations process, I’m going to apply the six activities of understand, visualize, describe, direct, lead, and assess to the realm of interpersonal skills. I’m also going to apply the metaphor of a boat’s components to explain the function of each activity in accomplishing goals and both establishing and maintaining relationships.


In the context of the operations process understanding refers to the ability to consider details related to terrain, the enemy, friendly forces, civilian populace, society, infrastructure, and other variables that may influence the conduct of operations. Mission Command doctrine also talks about understanding in the context of the philosophy of mission command, that understanding the commander’s intent and the overall common objective enables “subordinates to adapt to rapidly changing situations and exploit fleeting opportunities” (Page 1–4, ADRP 6–0). But what about understanding in the context of relationships? Understanding the strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and competencies of those you work with allow for more effective use of their talents. Further, the understanding of individuals for who they are, their motivations, fears, interests, passions, dislikes, personality, and even personality quirks, is instrumental in designing specific approaches to working with individuals in order to get the most out of them. Understanding of their family life, stresses, and hobbies also allows insight that provide invaluable comprehension to what makes them tick.

From http://www.guapa-tbs.com/mediac/400_0/media/f88747465e363f76ffff840fffa86322.JPG

The ability to understand the individuals in your organization is like the keel of a sailboat. It is essential to the stability of the vessel. It prevents the boat from capsizing — it keeps things right side up. Without the keel the boat does not remain upright in times of trouble. Without understanding the organization may fail in turmoil.


Visualization in the operations process refers to the commander’s ability to “see” the battle and operational environment before the execution of the mission. Leaders must visualize, based upon understanding, the end state and objective of their endeavor and how to get there. Visualization includes identifying the keys tasks and helps formulate the intent for how to conduct an activity. Visualization framed through understanding of individuals allows for a similar construct; that is, I must know what the individuals in the organization are capable and incapable of doing in order to visualize how their strengths will compliment each other to culminate in a successful outcome. Visualization in the context of relationships also may include the ability to “read” others and anticipate their actions or reactions based upon your knowledge of them as a person. Visualizing allows for an idea of how to do something to manifest itself in the description of what is desired.

From https://mcowlerson.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/a-really-cool-looking-compass.jpg

Visualization is like a compass. It can provide direction but may drift over time requiring a bit of calibration to make it read true. Visualization uses the understanding of the individuals within the organization to dream within the realm of the possible. Like a good compass, leaders must revisit their visualization of the relationships and goals of the organization periodically.


Once leaders visualize the desired end state they describe their intent and their visualization to their subordinates and staff. In military operations this typically takes on the form of commander’s guidance during the planning phase and manifests itself in an operations order during the “direct” activity. Commanders describe how they see the terrain, how they see the enemy, and how they see themselves and other friendly units. Based upon visualization framed through understanding, description helps the leader process their own intent through vocalization and helps the rest of the organization gain insight into the thinking of the leader. In other applications this includes describing roles and relationships within an organization, norms and rules, and responsibilities.

From http://www.mapcruzin.com/free-maps-australia-pacific/midway_islands_91.jpg

The map or nautical chart*, a graphical representation of the earth as seen from above, describes and paints the picture and helps provide finer detail to the compass. By describing intent and the visualization of the end state the leader provides a map to the desired destination; a way to get from here to there. But without a way to move and steer, a map and compass can only show you where you want to go.


Direction can include specific tasks or ways to do things. The amount of direction required is dependent upon the understanding of the visualization and description of the leader as well as the capabilities and limitations of those doing the work. Trust plays a huge role. In military operations the Operations Order (OPORD) is the primary formal “direct” mechanism, though direction takes on many forms. Direction takes on many forms dependent upon the situation and atmosphere; prescriptive, descriptive, laissez-faire, disinterested, absent. Those who are trusted to accomplish the intent typically are given more leeway and less direction than those who are less trusted or whose abilities are not as strong.

From https://www.sailboatstogo.com/images/fishingboatsail%2030.JPG

The rudder provides direction to the vessel, allowing it to maintain the direction required to achieve the destination indicated on the map and compass. The more inputs to the rudder, the more the vessel will deviate from the intended direction. Small inputs are best; likely a metaphor itself.


Leadership, as defined in ADRP 6–22, Army Leadership, is the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. Influence mechanisms include cooperation, persuasion, and coercion. Leaders who understand their organization tend to be much more effective in influencing cooperatively than those who do not understand the organization or operating environment, fail to visualize realistically, or cannot describe adequately to their organization what they’re trying to accomplish.

From http://www.s20.org/AndrewsCorner/AndrewsCorner2005-1/andrew1.jpg

The sail is the propulsion mechanism to get the vessel from one place to another. Leadership is the propulsion system for the organization. Without it the organization remains stagnant and unmoved.


The monitoring and candid analysis of progress throughout any execution phase is important to seize upon previously unforeseen opportunity or to mitigate unexpected hardship. Relationships and personalities should be assessed over time as well to get a more comprehensive and fair estimate of abilities. Further, assessment allows for identification of inputs or corrections necessary to maximize success during execution that may improve the stakes of accomplishment. Assessment before, during, and after an exercise, project, or operation increases the quality of the product and allows for timely corrective measures while in progress. Assessment is the hallmark of a learning organization and a performance measure of successful teams. In the leadership realm assessment of personal and organizational performance affords a more accurate and realistic vision of strengths and limitations of the plan, execution, and participants.

From http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9d/KHETD.jpg

The radar provides input and senses data that cannot be seen on the map and can aide navigation when visibility is reduced or obscured. Continuous assessment is required to identify opportunities or mitigate unforeseen hazards. Insight gained from the radar (assessment) may require changes to the compass (visualization), change to map data (description), require rudder movement (direction), and either additional or less propulsion or sails (leadership) to achieve the desired destination.

Understand, visualize, describe, direct, lead, assess — six activities that drive the operations process militarily but also have application in other endeavors. The keel, compass, map, rudder, sail, and radar all have important roles in the operation of a ship; so too do these activities in leadership and accomplishing goals and objectives.

Until next time, fair winds and following seas…

Center for Junior Officers

Publication of the US Army Center for Junior Officers

Center for Junior Officers

Publication of the US Army Center for Junior Officers. Through our efforts, we pursue our vision — to create a generation of junior officers who are inspired to lead through a human-centered approach. Our mission — to lead in creating and modeling high-quality content

The Stable of Leadership

Written by

Bettering the organization starts with me. Thoughts are the author’s and do not reflect DoD or the US Army.

Center for Junior Officers

Publication of the US Army Center for Junior Officers. Through our efforts, we pursue our vision — to create a generation of junior officers who are inspired to lead through a human-centered approach. Our mission — to lead in creating and modeling high-quality content