Commanders intent as a style of leadership

Without strategic clarity and clear vision teams have to rely on detailed plans to get things done. Yet, despite our best efforts planning rarely goes as expected. Worse, the bigger the project the more likely that things will go wrong.

The problem with relying on detail plans to guide execution are many:

  • Plans can only really be understood by the those who created them.
  • Plans leave little room for unexpected changes.
  • Plans encourage command and control behaviours, where people expect instruction as what to work on and when.
  • Plans disempower teams and reduces creativity.
  • Plans cause people to focus on tasks, rather than outcomes.

The reason planning fails is simple. As the military leader Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke observed, ”No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or as it was more elegantly put by Mike Tyson:

”Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Learning from decades of military history, commanders found a way of ensuring alignment without the need for detailed planning. They called this style of leadership commanders intent.

punched in the face

Commanders intent, at its heart is about making the shift from management to leadership.

The power of commanders intent

“Every civilization depends on the quality of the individuals it produces. If you over-organize humans, over-legalize them, suppress their urge to greatness-they cannot work and their civilization collapses.” – Frank Herbert

The concept of commanders intent began with the observation by military leaders that tight control over troops leads to poor decision making. Commanders intent provides a way to lead by providing individuals the freedom to adapt to the changing circumstances of battle. Instead of the rigid adherence to the commanders orders.

Commander’s intent is a description of what success would look like at the end of an initiative. The focus is on communicating purpose and outcomes, instead of relying on detailed plans and tight command. It allows individuals the greatest room for initiative, while keeping focus on the strategic intent. This is especially important in fast changing and uncertain environments.

Commanders intent communicates a clear outcome, so everyone knows what’s most important. When things go wrong the team can adjust the activities to help them achieve the goal. When successful, commanders intent creates an aligned team, able to adapt to a fast changing environment.

“A defining feature of Commander’s Intent is that it outlines what success looks like at the end—the outcome that matters most. Commander’s Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like.” — Chad Storlie, Manage Uncertainty with Commander’s Intent, Harvard Business Review

For example, if the commander tells the squad exactly what to do, providing the details of how the team needs to capture the enemy’s bunker, it constrains the squad’s ability to take initiative. It makes the job of the squad to execute the tasks as the commander instructed. But, if the situation on the ground changes, the squad leader has to stop the attack to ask the commander for new orders. A slow and inefficient process.

Yet, if the commander explains the strategic context and expected outcomes. For example “capture the enemy’s bunker to help us win the city”. The squad is free to use their skills, knowledge and creative talents to figure out the best way to capture the enemy’s bunker. As the squad understands what success looks like, they can ask themselves, “did we capture the bunker?”, adjusting as they go.

There are a two benefits of leading by commanders intent, rather than command and control.

  1. Commanders intent encourages individual initiative. Commanders intent helps individuals clarity of the strategic context and outcomes. This gives individuals freedom to respond to changing circumstances. Teams have the freedom to adjust their plan of attack along the way as the situation changes.
  2. Commanders intent enables rapid decision making. Commanders intent provides a clear focus on outcomes which improves decision making. Without clarity of outcomes every idea seems to be valid. This makes it difficult to decide which idea to pursue and which to abandon. Once your intent is clear decision making becomes a whole lot faster.

Commanders intent improves agility by encouraging individual initiative and faster decision making.

Trust based relationships

Commanders intent gives individuals the freedom to act independently. This freedom requires trust based relationships to exist between leaders and their teams.

Speed of execution results from decentralised decision making. In practice this means authority is delegated to the lowest level. This requires high levels of trust and shared responsibility between leaders and teams.

A great example of this kind of leadership is found in the Nordstrom employee handbook. The handbook for many years consisted of a single 5-by-8-inch card containing 75 words:

Welcome to Nordstrom

We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

Sadly, this version of the handbook is no longer in use. Today new hires get a detailed corporate handbook! The old handbook was a great way of communicating the Nordstrom’s intent.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway

Leadership without trust is worthless. Mutual trust underlies everything. It’s what turns a mob into a team. It’s the catalyst for individual initiative. People are much more likely to take initiative in an environment if trust, than in a climate of fear.

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” – Stephen R. Covey

Some of the ways to build trust based relationships are as follows:

  • Recognise that trust is earned. Trust cannot be assumed, trust is earned. It’s earned through shared experiences, working together on challenging problems. It’s through these shared experience that mutual trust is forged.
  • Lead by example. Leadership by example strengthens mutual trust. Leaders should be found on the front line. Not sitting safely in the head office issuing instructions. Leading by example is absolutely non negotiable.
  • Banished Micromanagement. Over-control undermines mutual trust. Control is the opposite of trust, you cannot lead by trying to control everything. Trust is damaged when leaders seek control and micro-mange. It’s one of the leading reasons for the erosion of trust in the workplace. When a leader tells you what needs to be accomplished and lets you do it, the message they’re sending is they trust you.
  • Ethics encourages trust. Trust is based on high ethical standards. Doing what’s right is essential when leading by commanders intent.

Communicate commanders intent

Fast, accurate and transparent information is critical in uncertain times. Teams need constant feedback to help them adapt to fast changing circumstances. Leaders need reliable information to help align teams and to inform their decisions. Leaders must encourage the rapid sharing of information up, down and across the organisation. This helps organisations to remain agile.

How to communicate commanders intent

Teams are more effective when they understand the broader context. Teams need clarity as to what’s important. Good communication means being clear about “what we plan to do and why it’s important”. There are two key parts of commanders intent, the what and the why.

The intent part of “commanders intent” is the why. The why communicates the reason a specific outcome is important. It makes clear how the outcome supports the strategy. The why is important as changing situations can make the what irrelevant. The team can use the why as a guide when considering alternative courses of action

Leaders must convey to teams what they need to achieve and why, but not how they need to do it. This ensures teams are not relegated to mere order takers. Instead it frees them up to use their creativity, skills and judgement to achieve success.

Communicating in this way helps the team focus their efforts. No matter what the situation they’re equipped to adapt to changing circumstances. They’re able to take the decisions needed to achieve the right results. It keeps teams aligned and focused on achieving the most important outcomes. Teams are able to ask themselves “does this decision make help us achieve the commander’s intent?” and adjust.

Remember actions communicate louder than words

It’s easy to forget that communication is as much about how you act as it is about what you say. Leadership by example, do-as-I-do leadership remains the most powerful form of communication. You can talk as as much as you like, produce beautiful powerpoint presentations, create the most polished training and videos. Unless you lead by example much of your communication efforts will fall on deaf ears.

When people are being asking to take independent action. To risk failure, a leaders example is key to providing the safety and confidence for teams to act. As the leader you should constantly reinforce what you say with what you do.

Rapid feedback: the teams responsibility

Leaders trust their teams to act independently. Taking rapid action requires short feedback loops.

Communication is not a top-down process as with command-and-control. Where the majority of communication flows down the management hierarchy. When leading by commanders intent much of the communication is bottom-up. Feedback to the commander about the unfolding situation. This steady stream of bottom up feedback allows leaders to create alignment across teams.

Your turn

Commanders intent is a style of leadership. It places people and relationships and at the centre of the organisation. It gives people the freedom to take action on what’s most important. It reduces the reliance on detailed bureaucratic planning and improves agility.

What we’ve learnt is that successful leadership in uncertain times is cultural, rather than technical.

Organisations competing in uncertain times need to urgently shift from a system that controls to a system that enables. They need to shift from command and control to commanders intent as a style of leadership.

Have you made this shift in your leadership style?