Commander’s Intent

Commander’s Intent describes what a successful result will look like, while acknowledging that the world is a chaotic environment with rapidly changing circumstances.  It is an overall guidance philosophy passed through the team that enables de-centralized decision making on the ground.  The philosophy is widely used in business, but stems from the military.

Imagine a sea battle where it is imperative that a narrow channel be secured.  The fleet Commander could tell the battleships exactly what steps to take, but what happens when one of those steps doesn’t go as planned?  The strategy falls apart and they must return to the Commander and ask what to do next.

This type of micro management taxes the Commanders finite resources as well as slows the decision making process.  Instead, the leader could clearly explained goal, why it was important, and what a successful outcome looked like.  Then his team would have the freedom to alter course after an unexpected change and be able to continue the assault on that channel without needing to come back for further instructions.

The key to this is Clear Communication to the entire team so that everyone sees the big picture, knows what is expected, and is empowered to act on their own within pre-defined limits.  Like any communication, it takes two sides; The Commander and the Team.  Each have certain responsibilities for this to work.

The Commander

Leading a complex team of individuals such as a ship or a business calls for certain trade offs.  You may have heard the phrase “what got you here won’t get you there.”  An example of this in shipping is that the Chief Officer takes a very active role in working with the team to get things done.  They need to watch people closely, check their progress, and assist as needed.

When you become the Captain however you can’t operate with that same level of specific intervention.  Now you are responsible for the vessel as a whole rather than just a specific department.  You must also balance the needs of the client, your home office, port officials, contractors, and government agencies, all while maintaining full situational awareness.  A new strategy is required to cope.  Commander’s Intent has 3 key’s that must be met if it is to succeed.

A Strategy

The Strategy, or vision, comes first.  After all, how can you pass the message if the message isn’t defined?

This is developed by looking at the who, what, when, where and why of your organization, looking at the perfect result, then working backwards to the culture, habits and actions required to reach that point.  Then this needs to be reduced to its most core principles, with the most effective actions taking priority.

The message that remains is the road map to success for the organization.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

With the message developed it must be communicated through the ranks to everyone on board.  The Commander’s number one job is to constantly communicate the strategy.  This serves to build and reinforce the desired culture within the organization by continuously reminding everyone what they are there for.

The message also spells out the boundaries of movement to your team.  In working out solutions on their own your team must know what is acceptable and what is not.  If discretionary spending has been authorized to help gain new clients, how much is appropriate?  A trip to the cafeteria or a trip to Vegas?  Define the boundaries then step back and allow people to work within them.

I’ve heard it said that a CEO’s number one job is to be continuously communicating the companies strategy by any and all means.  This applies to anyone in a leadership role.  Shout your desired outcome from the rooftops!

The purpose and culture of an organization are driven from the top down and this all starts with the Commander, be they a Captain, a CEO, or a branch manager.  They must hold themselves to a higher standard and not only always be doing the right thing, but they must also be seen to always be doing the right thing.

Competent People

The third thing the leader requires in order to fulfill Commanders Intent is competent people on the team.  They must possess the requisite skills so that when they are left on their own they have the tools to make the right decisions once the intent is understood.

Give people a task then stand back and let them complete it.  With competent people on staff you may be surprised with the ingenuity they bring to solving problems if given the space to work it out themselves.  The Commander must sometimes let go of the process and focus on the result.

Perhaps some team members are not up to scratch.  If there has been a longstanding problem then termination is one option, but being a leader also means taking responsibility for when things are not working out as planned.  This includes poor performance from the team.  When a member is performing poorly you must first look to yourself for the solution.

Did you adequately prepare them for the task?  Did they have the right tools available?  Did you state your intent clearly and repeatedly?  These are all your responsibilities and your obligation to your team.  To succeed you must give them the tools to succeed.

The better option is to mentor them through to the solution.  Once they’ve witnessed how the intent can be achieved it will help them to better make those decisions in the future.

The Team

The responsibility of the team in this communication is threefold.  After all, it takes two to have a conversation and the Commanders Intent will never be met if there isn’t people available to meet it.

Actively Listen

It is the responsibility of everyone under the Commander to actively listen to the message that is being sent.  If it falls on deaf ears this is the same as if it was never sent at all.

Everyone must have a measure of pride and self respect, and not fall into the singularity of “not my job”.  While it is important to do each individual job well, it is also important that they step outside of their role when required.  This shows team engagement which is a clear sign that your message is sinking in.

Ask Clarifying Questions

It is the teams responsibility to be sure that they understand the message you are sending.  Conversation works in two directions and they need to know what is being asked of them if they are to execute successfully.

These questions can also lead to a better solution, or even an improved overall strategy.  But only if the Commander is actively listening as well.


What is the point of all this talk if not to finally execute the task?

The team needs to make it happen, once the intent is clear.  If they need further help or advice then the Commander will provide it as required.  But before running back for advice they need to try and work it out themselves first.  The whole point of this is that people are allowed to develop the solutions on their own.

The successful outcome is defined, as are the boundaries of execution.  After that, how your team gets to the end is up to them.

Culture of Freedom

Commander’s Intent is a system that works towards the broader desired outcome for the organization, which is developing a Culture of Freedom.

Freedom to move.  Freedom to take initiative.  Freedom to use your best judgement, without reprisal.

This freedom comes with responsibilities as well.  To know your job.  To be proficient.  To understand the Commander’s Intent.

When this culture is ingrained within an organization everyone involved takes a higher level of responsibility.  They engage and maintain focus.  They care about the outcome.  Perhaps most importantly they stay fluid; quick to respond and react to changing conditions.

But it needs to start from the top and it needs to be genuine.  Only then can it permeate the team and be reflected back up.


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