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  • Writer's pictureMatt Garris

Mission First, People Always

The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.

Mission First, People Always

The false dilemma between mission and people is a common memory for military veterans. In fact, this dichotomous thinking is so widespread that one aerospace defense contractor incorporated it into their organizational motto. While the active duty units had the more popular nicknames and motto, the civilians and retirees employed by this contractor had adopted “Mission first, people always” as their slogan. This motto, while no doubt well-intentioned, sounded suspiciously like a warning. It seemed to suggest a second dichotomy in which the focus was always on the mission while the people were an afterthought. This is probably an unfair characterization of this organization’s culture, but that’s how I read it at the time.

The Primacy of Mission

The Marine Corps, at least during the 2000s, utilized a triangular leadership construct for noncommissioned officers, the three sides of which were leader, mission, and people. The model explained that all three variables affected the results of any endeavor. Junior Marines and leaders alike understood that certain human-mission combinations reliably led to more successful operational outcomes. However, the mission always came first as one would reasonably expect of military organizations in wartime.

The Permanence of People

While the mission may have primacy, leaders will be unable to accomplish much without followers. Koveshnikov and Ehrnrooth discussed “the role of followers in the co-creation of leadership together with leaders.” They also made the case that “without [followers’] recognition and granting legitimacy to leaders’ influence attempts there is no leadership.”


Interestingly, Breevat and De Vries found that “relationship-oriented leaders are able to provide comfort and emotional support” while “task-oriented leaders may prevent followers from experiencing emotions such as anxiety and worry.” This suggests that, even outside of a situational leadership approach, leaders from either orientation can successfully manage the mission-people dynamic. This best ensures that the lifeblood of the organization, the people who accomplish the mission, remain at the forefront of the organization’s consciousness.


Breevat, K. & De Vries, R. E. (2019). Followers HEXACO personality traits and preference for charismatic, relationship-oriented, and task-oriented leadership. Journal of Business Psychology.

Koveshnikov, A., & Ehrnrooth, M. (2018). The cross-cultural variation of the effects of transformational leadership behaviors on followers’ organizational identification: The case of idealized influence and individualized consideration in Finland and Russia. Management and Organization Review, 14(4), 747-779,


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