Applying the Mission Command “Serve to Lead” Leadership Model for South Africa’s Public Servant Leaders

July 20, 2019

Joanne Walsh

Managing Director – IDG South Africa

Applying the Mission Command “Serve to Lead” Leadership Model for South Africa’s Public Servant Leaders

Joanne Walsh, Managing Director, IDG South Africa interviews Richard Westley OBE MC, Director International – Inspirational Development Group.

Richard Westley has received awards of the highest honour, recognising his profound leadership prowess and ability to accomplish significant missions under his watch, in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

As South Africa is on the brink of a new leadership regime with newly appointed and/or anticipated new leaders in our State -Owned-Enterprises and in our Provincial and National Government, we recognise the need for a new leadership model that serves the people and gets things done, whilst tackling endemic corruption. In this interview, Richard explains why Mission Command is so relevant right now….


Joanne Walsh: What is the Mission Command Leadership Model?

Richard Westley: Mission Command is about empowerment. It is up to leaders to define the WHAT and WHY and the people on the ground to determine the HOW. It is the person on the ground that requires the confidence, competence and authority to choose a plan of action. Leaders have to give people the freedom to act.

JW: Surely this “freedom to act” presents its’ own set of risks? It is strongly suggested by the ex-CEO OF SAA in his very recent resignation letter that the reason for his resignation is largely due to the fact that he was not given freedom to act.

RW: Unity of command is a tenet of mission command. There can be discussion, debate even courteous disagreement, but at the end of the day, one person must make the decision. Once a leader has defined the mission it is up to the people to decide what needs to be done, but critical that the people feel supported. With a light hand on the tiller and an eye on the milestones required, leaders must measure progress to see where support is needed.

Mission Command is all about a “blame-free” and supported culture. People will not put their head above the parapet in a culture of blame. This is not an abdication of responsibility and requires obedience to orders. For a culture of “seek forgiveness not permission” to work, when things go wrong people are forgiven and not punished, provided they act within the agreed values set, and toward the mission objectives, defined by their leader’s intent.

JW: What are the distinct advantages of the Mission Command Model?

RW: The Mission Command model facilitates an organisation that is “fleet of foot”. This is particularly relevant in South Africa where political leaders have a limited tenure with pressing matters requiring urgent action. In government, the BIG HOW’s are of mammoth proportion and traditional hierarchical leadership will not allow agility and cohesive contributions from multiple stakeholders embarking on complex missions.

The Mission Command model addresses “silo” mentalities, aligning different disciplines to the overall intent and empowering them to do their specific good work well and quickly. With a clearly articulated intention and defined outcome, different departments are given the freedom to act and apply their specific competence and resources to fulfil their tasks or series of tasks required to accomplish the mission at hand.

Government missions, in particular, require a multi-disciplinary approach to accomplish their missions. Take for example a housing project. This will require a meaningful contribution from both National and Provincial departments along with civil society, multi-parties and departments within departments, and more. These projects require myriad technical contributions which could include police services, National Treasury, social development, planning, procurement, health and safety, compliance etc.

These different departments or stakeholder groups typically operate in isolation of each other. With a clearly defined intent, multiple contributors can achieve the mission expeditiously, despite their differences. This is experienced, often, in the military where a collective of multi-disciplined people in a battlegroup need to respond in an orchestrated and cohesive manner. Whether infantry or artillery, armoured or airborne, each discipline offers a very specific and relevant competence with the freedom to act, so long as their actions evidence a contribution to the overall mission.

JW: For the past month, our national and provincial governments have operated in a vacuum pending the appointment of new provincial and local leaders. In your experience what are the risks of this “hiatus” and how do new leaders mitigate this?

RW: Typically in transition, people respond in one of four ways.

  1. We can’t do anything? This is when a sentiment of complacency sets in.
  2. The people on the ground become disillusioned.
  3. Some may experience a sense of relief.
  4. Most will have a high level of expectation.

It is at this stage that new leaders will have to drive the tempo and tell people what they are thinking about, articulating their intention/mission.

Upon appointment, leaders need to stabilise the situation and then embark on an intense fact-finding mission. You have to know it, to challenge it. The mission-command model dictates robust mission analysis, and planning, with distinct contingency from the beginning and appropriate timelines/milestones to achieve objectives.

JW: Currently President Ramaphosa is being accused of taking too much time to consult. The environments in which you have led, have little margin for delays in decision making. What are your thoughts or recommendations when leaders are being pushed to act.

RW: There must be a balance in leadership between being despotic and indecisive. Time is perhaps the leader’s most critical information requirement. “How long have I got to make the decision? Once a timeline is ascertained the leader can frame his decision and the “why” to her/his people. Explanation obviates the likelihood of allegations of indecision or tyranny.

JW: How do leaders embark on mission analysis?

RW: With mission analysis, there are 4 key questions;

  1. What is my bosses’ intent? (two up if possible)
  2. What is my part in the plan? Specified tasks and those tasks that I believe are implied or necessary to complete the task
  3. What constraints and freedoms of action have I got? How much time have I got? How many resources?
  4. Has the situation changed? Or what if? Contingencies I can identify now (re-iterative)

Particularly with question 3. The Mission Command model works on a 1/3rd and 2/3rd rule. The leader takes 1/3rd of the time to plan and give clear direction early. This clarity will define the success of the mission.

Your people are given 2/3rd to plan what they need to do and disseminate their instructions. These are the tasks or series of tasks bound together with a unified purpose to accomplish the leaders’ defined mission.

JW: How do leaders plan for contingency, most often with unimagined challenges or opportunities?

RW: You cannot plan for everything. I recommend that leaders plan against 2 contingencies. Firstly, consider the worst scenario and secondly, the most likely. Ordinarily, any other eventuality will fall somewhere in between- as long as you conduct your planning you can tweak a “framework plan”.

JW: How does the Mission Command model tackle endemic corruption?

RW: Value Based Leadership underpins Mission Command. Anti-corruption needs to become a “way-of-being” with zero-tolerance for any deviation, behaviour or action that undermines the ethics or other values of your organisation. Sound ethical leaderships requires constant communication to verbalise what constitutes corruption; vigilant scrutiny to analyse where the risk lies, checks and balances from the outset and defined responsibility and accountability at every level. Once you have imbued your ethos and intent you can then allow your people to respond. One needs to explain from the outset what values and standards are expected and what will not be tolerated. A blame-free culture requires leaders to point up clearly what constitutes a breach of trust. Finally, as a leader you must “walk the walk” you lead by example in word and deed. You put your people, your team, before yourself – you “Serve to Lead”*

* – The motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

©Copyright IDG 2019


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