It's the end state. A specific outcome with flexibility on approach.
Commander's Intent is a publicly stated description of the desired end state as it relates to forces (like entities or people), terrain, the purpose of the operation, and key tasks to accomplish.
More specifically, the Commander’s Intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned.
The higher echelon commander’s intent provides the basis for unity of effort throughout the force. Each commander’s intent nests within the commander’s intent two levels up. During planning, the initial commander’s intent drives course of action development. During execution, the commander’s intent establishes the limits within which a subordinate may exercise initiative.
ok enough jargon soup.
Commander’s Intent (CI) usually looks irl something like “Commando Company of 1-67 Armor will seize Objective Budweiser by 2230 17 May 2022” .
This is useful because Commando Company knows who they are, what they must ultimately do, and by when.
As long as this is achieved they did the right thing.
Objective Budweiser might be a group of buildings or a hill or an airfield, but Commando Company knows that they have to seize it.
Seizing has a specific doctrinal definition. It means to clear a designated area of enemy and gain control of it. No more, no less.
This CI succinctly and clearly communicates that the seizing needs to happen by 2230, but importantly does not define the how.
If Commando Company was full of idiots, this format could be problematic, but since they are a unit of experienced Soldiers they take this guidance, work within the constraints of their context, and develop a step by step plan achieve the intent. This is how good units operate in the military.
(feels weird when reality doesn’t match the mindless military robot narrative huh?)
Anyway, sometimes the intent is more directive (take Route Zulu to get to Objective Budweiser) and on occasion is it less so (seize Object Budweiser tomorrow).
Not that complicated though right? Yet this leadership technique is truly transformational in its nuance.
Mostly because typical leadership throughout the history of humanity was emphatically not done like this.
First Principles first, large scale human organization is still very much in its infancy.
We straight up used to not be able to actually communicate regularly with the far flung teams actually accomplishing our organizational goals.
Do business with a company in another town a few hours away by horse? Cool, send your invoice corrections through the mail and hopefully you get them all the first time (otherwise it’s another few weeks before you get paid). Have a company outpost in a different country? Cool, hope they aren’t embezzling all the profits. No way to check though (unless you wanted to go pay them a visit for 1 month with 1 month of travel).
Over time, we’ve certainly gotten better at sending messages, though potentially not at communication?
I think it’s fair to argue that we have only just begun to understand how interactions with people change when you have to consider more than a Dunbar’s number of people.
In parallel with this chaotic math and the trudging advent of transporting packets faster, many organizational leaders dictated companies into existence in a way that wasn’t functionally possible before.
Alfred Sloan and the faux decentralized saga of GM is the archetype of this top directed organization. This model spawned the classic command and control corporate mentality that meme-d itself into pop culture’s understanding of business today.
At least for some tasks and has been popular for decades, but we’re clearly learning as a society it is a less efficient way of creating value at scale than like…empowering smart people who are close to their problem set.
I mean, at it’s most basic, leadership by pure centralized dictation tells your team to turn their brain off.
Leadership by Commander’s Intent, on the other hand, demands mental engagement.
This leads to a more favorable return distribution of outcomes over time.
What’s so hard to understand about that?
It takes a humble leader to know when they can’t make the best plan by themselves.
Leaders rarely have the contact with the medium really required to consistently make the right calls, yet the ego risk that’s inherently part of public role leads many to pretend like they can. This is a straight fallacy.
Of course, leaders have to make the hard calls, but they don’t have to do so in a vacuum.
Great leaders and managers understand when to empower the boots on the ground to make the decision they think has the highest likelihood of success.
Bad managers (read most managers) typically dictate the how. It’s so common that there’s actually a subreddit with 2M members dedicated to how often this approach goes wrong. Interpret that as you will.
Fighting this ego barrier is critical as this by default usually creates a fragile (or even worse a brittle) system.
One sick day from Bad Manager and it all goes to hell!
Even more important though is that, for an organization, the logical conclusion of leadership by dictation is to attract people that are either:
Stuck in life circumstances (poverty, etc) where they’re just stuck bearing the frustrations of complying with pure execution without any mental input
Willing to turn their brain off to comply
The former is a worse version of the world than it needs to be and the latter is honestly a terrifying foundation on which to build society.
Okay I hate that. How is Commanding that Intent Better?
When communicated well, Commander’s Intent is an effectiveness multiplier.
Subordinate teams that are empowered to take the initiative generally incur 3 compounding benefits:
They get more domain specific practice in low risk decision scenarios
They experience visceral improvisation repetitions
They internalize longitudinal and contextual feedback loops
Domain specific practice is useful for any operator. It unlocks implicit knowledge only earned through living an industry.
Improv repetitions cultivate the skill of changing techniques mid-stride. This can only be improved through trial and error. It’s an art and a science.
Longitudinal feedback loops divulge patterns in a space that are only revealed with access to long term data. Contextual feedback loops effectively micro-inform fast paced team activities.
All of these benefits are hard to cultivate and yet are immensely valuable for those building elite teams.
Leadership by intent creates an opportunity to capture more option value through the creativity of your people, while leading by dictation caps your upside, but still exposes you to the downside execution risk.
It forces the team to directly reckon with their unique problem set.
It is also inherently antifragile.
Reducing all of this, Commander’s Intent provides your team the time, space, and opportunity to handle all of the infinite scenarios and possibilities that you couldn’t possibly think through individually as a leader.
Why waste your time trying to boil that ocean?
You presumably tried to hire great people… Let them figure out the best way to win.
I hope this added value to your day.
Please share this with someone who might find this interesting!
If you have any thoughts or questions about this essay - Let’s Chat
To hear more from me, add me on Twitter or Farcaster,
and, of course, please subscribe to Wysr