The day was the 16th of October 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor of France, the keenest military mind on the European continent, and conqueror of near all that he saw before him.
He battled the British, Russians, Austro-Hungarians, and Prussians, against the latter winning twin emphatic victories at Jena-Auerstedt.
His armies were a well-oiled machine, with commands and communications being given clearly and precisely, all working in unison, and clearly acting out the machinations of their emperor’s brilliant mind.
The armies that faced him as well as his, were held by the strict orders of battle of their time. The armies were deeply entrenched in tradition and discipline. The thoughts of flogging and capital punishment were always on the soldier’s mind, keeping him in line, and making him nothing more than a piece on a chessboard.
His life and the lives of his comrades decided by the two men on either side of the table.
The Prussians realised that fighting like this, was no longer an option.
Pitting a General against a General, would not work. Napoleon was too keen a mind to be defeated in this way. The Battles at Jena and Auerstedt, finally brought the hammer home. They had to do something.
The Young Prussian officers present at these battles, were hamstrung by the rigidity and static nature of their command structure. Battle is a fluid motion, and the plans made at the General Staff level handed down all the way to the rank and file were strict, and unquestionable.
As Napoleon’s officers either moved position, were pressed in certain areas or advanced too far, there were weaknesses that appeared to the Prussians.
They were weaknesses that their command structure left them unable to take. By the time requests had been made to the higher command to attack these weaknesses, Napoleon had rectified them, and the opportunity was lost. Losing these moments of initiative, cost them the battle.
What arose from these defeats, was the beginning of a concept known as Aufragstaktik.
Aufragstaktik, proved so successful, that to this day it is the principle philosophy of Command in the German army. The philosophy has since been adopted by numerous military forces, yet not fully realised in many of them.
The British Combat estimate and seven questions, is directly based on this philosophy. In the combat estimate; soldiers are briefed for a platoon level assault in an orders process where they learn everything about Enemy Forces.
Their weapons, numbers, morale, positions, areas of dead ground, any reinforcements there might be in the area, communications and whether they will have support or IDF (Mortar fire and artillery). The list goes on.
You then focus on you and the terrain, what your numbers, support, roles, limitations, political and cultural repercussions and capabilities are. You assign objectives to each section, timelines, and signals for supporting one another and many more. Once done, every soldier also is reminded of the 1 up and 2 up’s (Boss and Bosses’ Boss) intent, and the intended effect your actions must have to complete your mission.
What it all comes together under, is initiative. The above is a simple breakdown of the orders process, but what it does is allow the front line officers the freedom and autonomy to develop a plan based on real time information and empower them to act as the battle is developing.
On top of that, all NCO’s and Soldiers are aware of the mission, and if the boss goes man down, what effects and objectives they will need to achieve to complete it. The NCOs have the trust to plan down to the section level, making their own plans to achieve the objectives given by the platoon commander.
Whilst they follow the framework of the mission, the NCO can adapt his orders to best succeed against real-time factors that pan out as the battle occurs.
A general planning a mission of this complexity miles from the ground would never work, orders mapped out well in advance and so far detached in time and detail will seldom net you victory. As what will happen and what you’ve planned, are often worlds apart.
This is how the Prussians beat Napoleon in the end. Their junior officers were trained to a much higher standard, and drilled in decision making, self-confidence and tactical training.
They were then able to recognise and granted autonomy to exploit weaknesses of their own accord in real time, without having to request orders. Knowing only a simple objective, they were able to use all the imagination and tools at their disposal to operate independently to achieve that.
This approach netted the Germans their sensational military campaign against France in 1940. The Generals had given their officers on a brigade level to reach the coast and to surround the BEF. The Brigade level orders on a Regimental level, and so on and so forth. The precision only increases as you go down the chain.
“The higher the authority, the shorter and more general will the orders be. The next lower command adds what further precision appears necessary. The detail of execution is left to the verbal order, to the command. Each thereby retains freedom of action and decision within his authority”. – Karl Bernhard von Moltke
It was not unusual for German Lieutenants of 22 years old to be able to successfully lead Battalions with more efficiency and success than far more senior British and American counterparts, due to this command philosophy. One of the key battles of the Battle of France, the capture of Fortress Eban Emael, was commanded by a Lieutenant of the Paratroopers.
The German advance through France, happened so quickly that they only stopped due to resupply runs. All of this was because their officers had a simple objective; to capture France. The when and hows’ were handled by the Junior Officers. They operated independently of the higher commands restrictions and bureaucracy, working on the Prussian combat dynamics of Mobility and speed, the result being a decisive victory.
Applications to rugby
As can be seen, Aufragstaktik, is the pre-eminent form of combat leadership. Yet, its applications to Rugby, have been realised by very few teams.
Rod MacQueen and Graham Henry were the first proponents of empowering players. The model espoused by both of them was based on the fact that Rugby is a fluid game, and therefore like the Germans, the General can only do so much.
The coach can provide the training, the resources and the knowledge with which to target the opposition, but once the kick-off is gone. They are little more than an interested spectator.
Therefore, both coaches ensured that roles were assigned within the team. Leadership groups of senior players were created, that looked after the off-field standards of the team and ensured the upkeep of the team culture.
This ensured the players knew their roles, the standards they were expected to maintain, as well as the infrastructure and team ethos that was key to providing the elite environment in which their players could thrive.
On-field roles in leadership were also assigned to specialists, whose roles within the team were well known to all players within the team. This meant there was no confusion in the hierarchy. If a random player screamed a call in defence but the defence captain had observed and countermanded him.
They knew whose order to follow. This way they were able to make the best tactical decisions at that moment in time. Simultaneously, the specialists within the teams were consistently being updated by a stream of information from all players, provided to them clearly and concisely. This way they were able to recognise positioning and the lay out of the field, allowing them the best judgement.
There were also secondary players in leadership roles in attack and defence, meaning it wasn’t all down to one person in decision making, but someone else could step in if in a better position, and countermand the others order.
This was coupled with a buy in by the players into their styles of play as well. Both coaches insisted that their teams take ownership of their game plans and the development of them. This ensured the players understood the effect their style of play would have and why they played that way, as well as knowing the details and dynamics of it inside out.
This developed a pride for each team in their style of play, as well as performing a style that no one else would ever be able to play as good as them.
Changes in culture
Aufragstaktik is now starting to show pre-eminence in rugby circles, whereas previously this was not the case.
The firm structures of Warrenball, held by the Welsh rugby team for so long, were put firmly in place, but did not allow for spur of the moment decision making. Much like the Hamstrung Prussians, they may have seen the opportunity, but the structure, pre-determined roles and rigidness of their system prevented them from taking it.
Eddie Jones’, the man who famously screamed at a centre for scoring a try when the ball was planned to go to the Winger.
“Was” the embodiment of “Normaltaktiker”, the Generals who wanted to order the individual movements of their soldiers to the last detail. This has softened following the developments of his coaching career, to where now he has intentionally not turned up to training sessions, wanting to see the reactions of his players and whether they have the leadership structures and initiative to work independently without him and the coaching staff.
The idea being that this independence will graduate to the Rugby Field.
Brian Ashton, one of England’s greatest rugby brains and head coach during the 2007 World Cup lamented the attitude of his England players.
He was of the opinion of putting player input and responsibility to the fore, whereas the England team of the time wanted a game-plan from the coach and to be told what to do. Maybe Ashton went too far in his approach, didn’t offer enough guidance intentionally in the hopes of kick starting the Aufragstaktik approach, but what he didn’t count on was the Leadership in his team.
The England team of 2003 had eight world class players and leaders in their team. Therefore under Woodward, they were happy with this approach, they were happy to step up to the fore, and take the burden. In 2007, many of these players had retired, and this dynamic did not exist in the team anymore.
This change is a cultural change, not a quick one. Opening the players up to responsibility and leadership makes better people, and as Mr Henry once famously said “Better people make better All Blacks”.
Developing a culture based around this has been shown in Military circles to the pre-eminent way towards high performance in battle. The traits and mentality needed to succeed in both Combat and rugby, are not too dissimilar.
If coaches can rid themselves of their own ego, and allow and encourage players to input into the team style of play. The way they run their team and hold themselves, will go a long way to developing self-sufficiency and independence on the field. The dictatorial approach, run by some coaches, is no longer enough.
Regardless of your rugby brain, you will never be able to plan for the real-time changes and complexities of events on that field. Training your players to handle and thrive in taking that ownership and knowing how their style of play can help them win, is by far the wiser route to sustainable success.