My son is applying to a military academy. As you might imagine, our household has been full of discussions about military issues and approaches to things. In working with clients recently, I realized that one of the military’s greatest leadership principles I was opining on with my son is rarely leveraged in the commercial world. This is the concept of “commander’s intent.”
In brief, as it was explained to me by an Air Force colonel years ago, commander’s intent is a statement of the desired end state that is so clear that it gives the forces guidance if they encounter aberrations when they’re in the field. For example, if the commander’s intent is to “take the hill,” then when troops following the plan to approach from the south encounter unexpected resistance, they can adjust tactics and “take the hill” from the west because they are clear on the fact that success means “the hill has been taken.”
Commander’s intent is a leadership principle that can be interpreted in many ways. It functions specifically to guide unstructured collaboration in the context of the hierarchical and authoritarian structures of the military in ways that simply don’t translate into the already collaborative commercial environments that business leaders find ourselves in.
But there’s a kernel of true wisdom in this idea that I suggest business leaders learn to adopt. I call it “management by intention,” and it’s the ability to guide a group into committing to a shared intention — simply stated but rich with meaning — that is so clear that it focuses everyone’s actions on a common definition of success without the need for micromanagement or overanalysis.
In this sense, I’ve seen it operate like “strategic planning in a box.” Instead of creating a strategic planning binder and putting it on a shelf in the VP’s office, a one-page intention with some corollary communications support goes out to the whole staff. Before you know it, if the leadership stays laser-focused as a team and individually, the whole organization is humming along “on plan” and focused on the same end goal.
There is a clear formula and approach for creating an intention that can have such a unifying and motivating effect, but I have yet to find a leader who can use this technique without first becoming adept at using it personally. Ultimately, intentions, plans and strategies are all about making decisions on how to use energy and resources. Until leaders can use their resources and energy (i.e., their time, attention, etc.) wisely in pursuit of a clear intention, they will continually struggle to help others manage theirs.
So ask yourself, what is your intention for yourself today? This year? What does your team think it is? Learn to focus your own energy and you’ll tap into new techniques for leading others to success.
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