Small Wars Journal

Improving Leader Education: Team Building, Mission Command, and the Command and General Staff Officers Course

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 10:03am

Improving Leader Education: Team Building, Mission Command, and the Command and General Staff Officers Course

Kevin E. Gentzler


When we think of teams we often think of a group of people coming together with a common purpose to win a championship. Perhaps our minds move toward remembering a time when a leader created a team to solve a particularly difficult problem.  Teams have become an essential part of organizations that seek success (Cohen & Bailey, 2001).  Army leaders have a wide range of reasons for, and methods of, developing teams. In this article I will provide an examination of current thought on how to build a team capable of performing at a high level. This paper examines four elements of teams and teamwork related to organizational-level leader responsibilities within the United States Army. The paper begins with a review of current United States Army doctrine related to team-building.  The next element describes the importance of building trust in a successful team-building organization. Trust gives way to a description of the difference between team-building activities and building teams.  The final portion of the paper includes brief reviews of different team-building models including a description of the model for building high-performing teams taught at the United States Army Command and General Staff College.

Current Doctrine

The latest Army doctrine has produced a number of changes across the Army. No change, though, has been as far-reaching as the development of Mission Command as the philosophical underpinnings of most Army doctrine.  In conjunction with establishing the philosophy of mission command the senior leaders in the Army also published The Mission Command Strategy FY 13-19 which describes various strategic end states (SE). SE -2 states, Commanders and staffs effectively execute Mission Command Warfighting Function tasks. This establishes the link between philosophy and action. It also emphasizes the importance of ensuring each leader understands how to use the philosophical principles to succeed in a complex, ambiguous environment.

Understanding team-building is important to properly understand Mission Command as a philosophy. This is because the first doctrinal principle of Mission Command is centered on team-building - “Build cohesive teams through mutual trust” (Department of the Army, 2012a). The prominence of this principle in a construct afforded the publicity and emphasis of Mission Command displays the importance of teams in the Army today. The Army is no different than other organizations, in this regard. Teams are vital to success in many types of organizations and across many different cultures (Lucas, 2010). However the emphasis of this principle of Mission Command contributes to the implication that leaders who fail to build teams will fail in operating under the Mission Command philosophy. 

The move toward Mission Command or a Mission Command philosophical construct is very important and applicable to many organizations. In his article on team development, Daniel Holden writes,  

”The command and control mindset, a mainstay of traditional organizations, doesn't yield the kind of nimble, responsive results a complex, fast-changing world requires. It (the command and control mindset) depends on hierarchy and a chain of command rather than relationship, dialogue, and trust” (Holden, 2007, p. 20).  

These words were written for the publication Industrial Management, though they might as well have been published as part of the Mission Command Strategy for Fiscal Years 13 through 19.  This is just one of many sources that indicate the transition away from a pure command and control mindset is not limited to the Army. Other organizations within differing operating environments see the value in developing teams to deal with multiple problems or situations requiring quick adjustments because of a rapidly changing environment.  A command and control mentality does not allow for development of teams that can respond to that environment.

While developing teams is critical for success in a rapidly changing environment developing team members is vital to the team. This portion of team-building is often ignored. Without effective team members it would be nearly impossible to field an effective team. Two important tasks related to developing team members are found in the Army Leader Requirements Model - Develops Others and Creates a Positive Environment (Department of the Army, 2012c). These two tasks and the associated sub-tasks or elements (Figure 1) describe the actions leaders should take when developing team members. When a leader focuses on these sub-tasks he enables others to work in an efficient and effective manner thereby developing team members and contributing toward building teams.  

Figure 1: Developing Good Team Members

Developing Trust

The development of team members is enabled by trust within the organization. Trust is a critical aspect of building a high performing team and the Mission Command philosophy.  Holden (2007) clearly states the need for trust. Holden (2007) describes building trust through developing relationships specifically as “…allowing others to see both our upsides…and our downsides.” This statement, although applicable to all members of an organization, is particularly important for the leadership of an organization. Leaders who are transparent about success and failure will enable similar attitudes in their subordinates. Holden also places emphasis on the commonality of shared human experience when he writes, “Our shared humanity becomes the common ground upon which we move forward” (Holden, 2007, p. 22). Shared humanity is essential to developing a positive climate in an organization and leads to the shared values of a positive culture. Yet it is not possible without trust between individuals (Lewis & Weigert, 1985).  Another idea pertinent to trust and team success is the need to suspend assumptions within the group (Yeager & Nafukho, 2012). Without suspending assumptions people will not trust others and the team will fail. These thoughts from Holden and others convey ideas with which most Army leaders seem uncomfortable. This is borne out by the responses to the latest survey conducted by the Center for Army Leadership which indicates many Amy leaders still do not develop a climate of trust toward subordinate leaders.  Without trust leaders will not be able to utilize Mission Command as a philosophy of leadership. 

If a leader does not transition to a leadership style that exhibits trust in others and accepts prudent risk he or she will likely fail at building a successful and high performing team.  Mayer, et al. (1995) defines trust as the willingness of a person to rely on another person in the absence of monitoring. Leaders must work to build mutual trust across the organization and they must accept risk in doing so. This dovetails with another principle of Mission Command - Accept Prudent Risk.  Mayer, Davis and Schoorman (1995) state, “Working together often involves interdependence and people must therefore depend on others in various ways to accomplish their personal and organizational goals” (p. 710). Trust and acceptance of risk are implicit in this statement.  As a leader works through a team the established goals for the team or the organization are at risk. The leader must trust the individuals within the team to accomplish the objectives or goals. The act of trusting others requires the leader to accept risk and back away from the project or mission and delegate responsibility to someone else.  One method of establishing trust is through team-building activities.

The Difference Between Team-Building Activities and Building a Team

When a leader assesses an organization, a mission, or project he or she may determine a need to use a team to fill the gap in performance or accomplish the mission. The question the leader then faces is how to turn a group of people into an effective and efficient team.  According to Cohen and Bailey (2001):

A team is a collection of individuals who are interdependent in their tasks, who share responsibility for outcomes, who see themselves and who are seen by others as an intact social entity embedded in one or more larger social systems (for example, business unit or the corporation), and who manage their relationships across organizational boundaries.

Most people confuse Team-building activities with building a team.  Team-building activities are those events undertaken with a group of disparate individuals to break down barriers between the people in the group. Sometimes these activities are called icebreakers or energizers. A quick Google search provides more than 16 million results for team-building activities for adults.  These activities are designed to move people through the stages of group development (Tuckman, 1965) in an accelerated manner. Typically team-building activities include events that challenge the members by placing them in situations which require reliance on each other to accomplish a task or series of tasks. In extreme cases organizations will require groups to complete obstacle courses, ropes courses, or other physically challenging events to assist in group development. These events, whether physical or in a classroom setting, get people to risk exposure of their weaknesses, and develop trust among the other group members.  While these activities serve a valuable role they are not the same as building a team. 

Building a team is a different process than team-building activities. Building a team must be nested with the idea of the team’s mission in mind. When building a team a leader must consider the best way to accomplish the mission and allow that process to influence the process of building the team. One of the first steps in building a team is to identify the appropriate type of team for the mission or project. There are several types of teams the leader may choose to use.  These types include: a manger-led team, a self-directing team, a self-governing team (Thompson, 2008), or cross-functional team.  Each type of team has specific functionalities that will align with the purpose or mission thereby allowing the organization to maximize the effectiveness of the team.  The type of team is typically tied to the seriousness or complexity of the problem the organization is facing as well as the leaders individual leadership style. 

In a manger led team the members have little autonomy because the power of decision-making and resourcing all resides with the manager. This includes team member selection and mission selection.   Self-directed teams are teams that control all aspects of a business operation.  This team-type is more independent than the manager-led team (Douglas & Gardner, 2004). The team is given a mission or operation to work on. However, once the mission or operation is given to the team there is little if any input from a manager or other supervisor. These teams tend to be more efficient and productive than other types.  A self-governing team takes this a step further and selects the people on the team and the mission or operation it will take on with no direction from another person or leader in the organization.  The team members determine all aspects of how the team will function. These are the most independent types of teams. Cross functional teams are similar to manager led teams. The mission and resourcing is provided to the team and someone is established as the leader. The cross functional team brings people together from all the different departments in the organization to work on a specific task. These teams can improve productivity if the team members can overcome their natural divided loyalty between the team and their original department and avoid team dynamics that will reinforce biases (Bagshaw, Lepp, & Zorn, 2007).  The next thing a leader must consider is the people available to work on the team. One aspect is developing an understanding of the interpersonal and individual skills of potential team members. Staffing the team may also require inter-organization coordination or finding resources in order to hire the right people for the team. Table 1 provides a list of questions a leader can use to review the team purpose and who is a best-fit for membership.

Figure 2 - Questions for Building a Team

How to Build a Team

Just as there are many team-building activities available to use there are many models for building teams.  Three current models are from Patrick Lecioni, Howard Katzenbach and Doug Smith, and Glenn Parker. Patrick Lecioni describes a model using a negative example in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  Another team building model is described in the book The Wisdom of Teams by Katzenbach and Smith. Glenn Parker developed a model based on the personality styles of the team members.  One thing to note when building a team is the effect of group development on the members of team.

Tuckman’s theory of group development identifies five stages that each group, whether considered a team or not, will travel through during the time the members of the group are together. Those stages, forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning, each describe activities and attitudes within the group from the time the group is formed until it is disbanded. A leader can observe the group and watch for indicators of each stage. This allows the leader to gather information about the life-cycle of the group and to understand what is going on inside the group or team at a particular point in time. The leader can use the information to ensure the group develops the necessary cohesion and norms to perform in a satisfactory manner. If the group is stuck in one stage the leader has two courses of action available. He or she can take action to move the group beyond that stage. This artificial stimulus might cause other problems within the group.  Alternatively the leader can allow the team to work through the difficulties in that stage. By taking this course of action the leader may have a stronger team to work with because the team members know how to work through conflict in a productive manner.  If the leader decides to interject himself or herself into the group development the leader may choose to use some team-building activities to help the team get beyond the issue at hand.  Tuckman’s theory is applicable to all small groups or teams regardless of the model the leader is using to build the team.  In some cases leaders will intentionally move a group through the stages of group development before giving the group a real mission or function.

While many team-building models exist the United States Army Command and General Staff College currently teaches a particular model. That model is the Rocket Model for Building High Performing Teams © developed by Gordon Curphy and Robert Hogan. Curphy and Hogan have developed a model that encompasses many terms that are familiar to Army leaders. There are seven stages of the model; mission, talent, norms, buy-in, power, morale, and results all set in a situational context. 

According to Curphy and Hogan leaders must begin team development by communicating a clear understanding of the mission. Establishing and clearly communicating the mission for the team allows the members to develop their own expectations about their position in the team.  Aligning talent with the mission is also an important element of the model.  The leader developing the team knows the mission best and should know the strengths of the people available for the team. His or her knowledge should allow selection of the best members for the mission thereby aligning strengths to the mission. Developing the norms or standards for the team is the third stage. This is similar to the norming stage of Tuckman’s theory and should occur at about the same time in the life span of a team. The leader should pay attention to gaining buy-in by the team members for the norms and mission. If the leader sells this stage short by interrupting the development of the norms or ignoring this altogether the team will not produce the best results nor be committed to accomplishing the mission efficiently and effectively.

The next stage of team development is the power stage. Curphy and Hogan state, “Power concerns the quality and quantity of the resources that groups or teams need to win…A teams goals should determine a team’s resources” (2012, p. 118). Power also has to do with the authority the team has within the larger organization.  The more critical the mission of the team to the life of the organization, the more power or authority the team should have (Curphy & Hogan, 2012).  The sixth stage of the model is morale.   Morale is related to the cohesiveness of the team and the level of conflict within the team.  Establishing an affective climate within the team will typically help establish good morale (Hernandez Baeza, Araya Lao, Garica, Menses, & Gonzalez Roma , 2009). Maintaining morale and managing conflict is critical for team success. If the leader cannot keep morale high then there should be no expectation of accomplishing the mission, no matter how professional the individual team members may be. The last stage is getting results. This is similar to the performing stage of Tuckman’s theory. The results stage is when all the team members are performing at their best, the team has coalesced and is accomplishing the mission or purpose for which it was designed. There is one other consideration within the Curphy/Hogan approach to team-building.

Context is the remaining element related to the Rocket Model. Context is not a stage but understanding the context is critical for the team to achieve the desired results. Context accounts for situational factors and constituencies with which the team is faced and interacts. The team leader must understand the context of the team. If the leader fails to account for the context the team may work in a manner that will not allow success. Understanding context is difficult but not impossible. One method for developing understanding of the context is problem framing.  By framing the problem the leader can identify key constituencies, external factors, underlying assumptions, facts, and interests of others. All of these factors will help the leader understand the context and improve the team’s chances for success. Understanding the context can also relate to the mission command principles of create a shared understanding and provide a clear commander’s intent.

The Rocket Model provides a sound basis for team development within Army organizations. The need for effective teamwork always exists from the squad level to the strategic level teams provide qualities and capabilities that individuals cannot.  This particular model has an advantage over other models because it can be used as a diagnostic tool or a prescriptive tool. This means the leaders who use the Rocket Model can achieve two tasks with one process. The leader can assess the contextual situation using the model in a diagnostic sense.  The leader can prescribe a method of building a team or employment of the team to address the issues revealed during the assessment. While other models may have less steps or are better known, the twin capacities of diagnosis and prescription in this model make it very valuable for Army leaders.   


Current Army doctrine establishes the need for leaders to build effective teams that are able to utilize the principles of Mission Command. In order to build teams leaders need to develop a climate of trust in the organization and he or she must accept prudent risk. There are many reasons to use teams. Those reasons come from the context in which the organization is operating. There are also many different methods for building teams. The Command and General staff College has settled on teaching the Rocket Model for Building High Performing Teams because of its diagnostic and prescriptive capabilities. Building teams that are effective and efficient is part of the art of leadership and is something that differentiates organizational-level leaders from direct-level leaders. Achieving success through the use of teams is the essence of organizational leadership.


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Department of the Army, (2012b), Army Field Manual 7-15, The Army Universal Task List, Washington, D.C.

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Tuckman, Bruce (1965). "Developmental sequence in small groups". Psychological Bulletin 63 (6): 384–99.

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About the Author(s)

Kevin E. Gentzler is a retired US Army Officer currently working as an Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the US Army Command and General Staff College.  Kevin served in a variety of Army and Joint positions throughout his career and deployed to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He has a BS in Business from Missouri Southern State University, a MA in Organizational Leadership from Regent University in Virginia Beach and is currently pursuing a doctorate. He and his family also own a retail business in Historic Leavenworth, Kansas.