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Give mission orders rather than detailed instructions

  • By Alan Knott-Craig
  • March 25, 2017


In pre-Napoleon armies, all subordinates waited for specific instructions from the general before doing anything. Even if there was a defenceless enemy in front of them, unless they had written instructions saying, “If you see enemy, kill him”, they would not attack.


It was total a command-and-control structure. The trouble is that it was very inflexible. Local commanders could not make decisions. Many opportunities were missed due to slow communications whilst the troops waited for the general to issue orders.


The key flaw was it slowed down the army.


Then Napoleon came along and smashed every army in Europe by inventing the concept of “mission orders”.


Instead of issuing instructions that detailed every step of every minute of every day, he would issue a mission objective: Meet me at Munich on 25 March. Attack any weak enemy along the way.


With that in hand, his lieutenants were free to choose “how” they got to Munich. And they were free to exploit any opportunities along the way without having to send for instructions from Napoleon


This only worked because Napoleon had selected his lieutenants at a young age, and worked with them for years, effectively brainwashing them to behave in the same way he would. That is why he could trust them to carry out mission orders. He knew they would make the right decisions along the way.


The end result was:


  1. His armies did not have to travel in one formation. He could split up into 20 divisions and say “Meet me on 25 March.” To the consternation of his opposing generals, Napoleon’s men would melt away in different directions and miraculous reform many weeks and miles down the line
  2. His armies moved faster than any other army of his generation
  3. His lieutenants could take the initiative.
  4. Napoleon conquered Europe.


If you want to move fast, develop young lieutenants and give mission orders.


If you don’t move fast, you’ll fail.

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