Chapter 7: Commander’s Intent

Where are we going, and WHY? This is the most basic question followers want answered. Yet it is the one least frequently answered today. Along these lines, much has been written about the importance of vision and the necessity for leaders to articulate one. Commander’s intent differs from vision in that it is more specific; it deals with a finite objective, a way of behaving, or a desired result. More important though, both contain a future orientation and a picture of what the organization is moving towards. For example, a commander may have a vision of winning a battle. This vision then gets executed through plans set forth using commander’s intent as guidance. A corporate CEO has a vision of being world-class in customer service to increase market share. The commander’s intent for this CEO might specify training of people and systems enhancement as the means to this end.

In both cases, however, there is a future orientation. In both cases, there is something for subordinates to latch onto and use as a guide in their planning and in their daily behaviors. The importance of this concept cannot be overstated. “Commanders intent,” was cited by everyone interviewed for this project as one of the essential elements of effective leadership. In the absence of this clear guidance from the leader, the group is uncertain in its direction and actions. Uncertainty leads to hesitation, which leads to marginal productivity and uncertain results.

Harvard professor John Kotter in his article, “What Leaders Really Do,” offers that setting direction is the first priority of leadership. “Since the function of leadership is to produce change, setting direction of that change is fundamental to leadership. Setting direction is never the same as planning…The direction setting aspect of leadership does not produce plans; it creates vision and strategy. These describe a business, technology, or corporate culture in terms of what it should be over the long-term and articulate a feasible way of achieving the goal.” He suggests that planning, a management function, is not a substitute for direction; rather, it becomes a complement to direction. The articulated direction orients the planners and enables them to focus their efforts. I spoke after a noted speaker at a convention once who stated that leadership and management are arch enemies. I totally disagreed then and I still do now. While they may be mutually exclusive in that they cannot be done at the same time by the same person, they are intimate allies and must work together.

There is a deep and universal emotion that underlies commander’s intent. Trust. When a leader tells you what he wants to accomplish and lets you go do it, he is sending a message that he trusts you to do the job. This trust between people is the bedrock on which effective organizations are built. Roger Brown, Captain USMC, Project Manager, tells of being the scheduling Officer at a pilot training squadron that was not making quota. The commander came to him and essentially said, “What we are doing isn’t working, we are not making our numbers, I need you to come up with a plan to do it.” This clear direction and the implied confidence unleashed creativity in Roger, and he developed an innovative and creative solution to help the unit not only get back on schedule but get ahead of schedule. Roger’s final comment is illustrative: “He told me where he wanted to be, then we went outside the traditional method to use my plan to make it happen. I would have died trying to make that plan happen.

Those we lead want to know where we are going and why. By sharing this information with them, you send the message that you trust them. Trust is the bedrock of successful organizations, and it inspires the people we lead to go out of their way to make us look good.

Communication about your direction is critical and must be continual. You must vary your methods, but not your message, to reach everyone and to keep them aligned with your goals. The best leaders recognize the importance of communication and study ways to improve in the use of this skill.

Putting this all together is one of the biggest challenges a leader faces. There are market forces outside the company, competing priorities inside the company, and just too little time to spend on talking about issues. Yet in the talking we set the stage for success.

Wally Adamchik is the President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. You can visit him on the web at or email him at

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