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Ask any CEO if s/he recommends leading their company like a military general.  Most would say a resounding “No!’.  And yet, a well lead army is like a fine-tuned machine. Most of the companies we work with are not so finely tuned (yet).

We don’t like war. We do like great leadership. And we especially like an approach called Commander’s Intent (CI).  When leaders are called to lead through times of fast pace, chaos, uncertainty and complexity, CI is vital.

If a general tells a field commander precisely how to capture a hill and the situation changes, the field commander is forced to return to the general for new orders, which is very slow and inefficient. If the general explains the strategy to the field commander and explains why that hill is important and how it supports the overall strategy, the field commander is free to use their knowledge of the goal and fresh intelligence to act in a new way that supports the original intent.

 – Josh Kaufman, The Personal MBA

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, HBR

Company environments, while rarely life and death, can feel like an uncertain battlefield. In times of uncertainty, we notice that leaders tend to move to the extremes:

  • They don’t cast a clear vision or define what outcomes matter so everyone goes in different directions; or,
  • They become so prescriptive (micromanage) that individual and business growth is stunted.

A chief financial officer we work with has been experimenting with CI. He used to do a lot of work himself on creating and maintaining reports. His raft of doing the work himself was preventing him from spending enough strategic time on merger and acquisition plans.  

He recently did things differently with great results.  Instead of producing cash flow projections himself, he spelled out the end state he wanted and why it was so important to the company. He then asked his accounts receivable employee to run with it.

“He wowed me with what he brought back.  He did it differently and better than I would have. He was proud of his work too and he’s eager to take on more. It was a win for me, for him and for our company.”

The most effective leaders cast vision and give only enough direction so their people can figure out how to do the work. Leaders at each level communicate the outcomes that matter and support their teams to improvise and adapt to execute well.  For our CFO, the long-term effects are clear—he clears space for strategic work, his A/R employee grows and feels motivated and loyal, and the company gets better solutions which lead to better results.  

How could Commander’s Intent help you lead?


Tim Edris of Emerging Leaders Institute and Lisa Chandler of Chandler Coaches are leadership development consultants/coaches whose companies collaborate to improve leadership effectiveness to drive business results.

“Leadership Development in the Trenches” is a series dedicated to examples of leadership actions that grow business effectiveness. You can read the previous post, Your [Life] Raft Could Sink You, here.

A traveler was on an epic journey. The kind we have heard about in the writings of antiquity– a hero’s journey of sorts. As he was traveling he encountered a river that was too deep and fast moving to cross without help. The dismayed traveler looked up and down the shore to find a bridge, fallen log, or stones to hop on but nothing was available. Discouraged, he was about to give up when he spied a raft trapped in an eddy behind a large rock. He used the raft to successfully cross the river. Overjoyed with his success, the traveler loaded the raft onto his back and carried it wherever he went, even as he climbed a mountain pass.

∼Derivation of an old Buddhist tale

Imagine carrying a raft wherever you go. It is heavy and cumbersome and would weigh you down or get caught on branches. From our perspective, we can see the traveler was foolish to keep the raft for his entire journey.

But leaders do it. Everyday.

The “raft” represents a successful way to navigate a treacherous situation. Leaders develop ways of leading that bring them success along the way. These rafts are the perfect answer to the situation at the time—the winning strategy.

The difference between effective and ineffective leaders starts with awareness. Effective leaders know when their way of leading (i.e. high control, working around the clock, solving all technical challenges themselves etc.) has outlived its usefulness. They know when to put down their raft and change their game.

What raft(s) are you carrying that have outlived their purpose?

Let’s look at a real CEO and her self-identified raft of needing to win all the time. Her strategy grew a small business into a multimillion dollar business with the potential to double or triple its size in the near term. This is impressive. Her raft was absolutely needed to create and grow the company.

Needing to win all the time has a shadow side too– especially if it is unconscious. In other words, the very things that have brought this CEO success can become a liability if she is blind to them. When she is not aware of her raft:

  • She accelerates pace and complexity, unnecessarily at times, to feed her ego/ drive;
  • She prioritizes accomplishment (winning) over investing in relationships; and,
  • She brings an intensity that is overwhelming and fatiguing to her team.

Clinging to our rafts, or not even knowing they exist can win a leader the battle, but cost her the war – fostering a culture of anxiety or mistrust. Unconsciously needing to win all the time can ultimately lead to the leader being isolated because her team, at a point, may refuse to follow. Ironically, our leader above cares deeply about her people and would feel devastated to lose key members of her team because she pressed to win at all costs.

We use the raft story in our Leadership System™ work. Helping leaders uncover their hidden rafts can help them consciously choose new and more effective winning strategies when their old rafts no longer serve.

So what though?

“Effective leaders outperform ineffective leaders every time”.

~ Bill Adams

Put another way, every percentile increase in overall leadership effectiveness (the collective effectiveness of the senior team) directly correlates to stronger organizational performance.

Can your company really shoulder the burden of outdated rafts? And what would be possible if you consciously put them down sometimes?


Tim Edris of Emerging Leaders Institute and Lisa Chandler of Chandler Coaches are leadership development consultants/coaches whose companies collaborate to improve leadership effectiveness to drive business results.

Leadership Development in the Trenches is a series dedicated to examples of leadership actions that grow business effectiveness. Read the previous post: Leadership Metrics – Game Changers for Improving Leadership/Business Effectiveness.

High status vs low status - what you learn on the improv stage is valuable in business life.I’m a rookie when it comes to improv theatre. Even as a rookie, though, I have already learned a ton. You might be surprised how much of it translates into how I coach and lead. I’ve written before about how the improvised leader is better than you think. In that post, I was focussed on an improv basic called the “rule of agreement” where we focus on saying “yes/and” so we can create together in the moment.

What is status? In different circumstances or different times, you will feel more or less powerful, more or less confident, more or less in control. But ultimately how you feel is private knowledge. Only you can know for certain how powerful or confident you are feeling. But it is also true that we make guesses all the time about how other people might be feeling, and those guesses are often right (just not 100 percent of the time). Status can be thought of as anything you would use to base such a guess on. This time I am focussed on status. High status and low status.

Leaders have status thru the offices they hold, their titles and their awards. The status I mean here though is independent of the social (leadership) status one has. Keith Johnstone, theatre director, playwright and pioneer of theatre sports, describes status as something one does, independent of the social status one has. What does this mean?

At improv class, we did some fun experiments on status. We were asked first to play with low status behaviours. We created improv scenes during which we made sure to touch our face, twirl our hair, have slouchy posture and mumble. Doing these actions on purpose had me feeling like a bumbling idiot. I was giggly and lacking in confidence. It was fun, to be sure, but certainly not very powerful. On the other hand, experimenting with high status behaviours like standing up straight and moving my head very little while making direct eye contact had me feeling in command. It was incredible to witness how different I felt simply by embodying different postures and hand gestures.

Deborah Frances-White is a comedian who regularly delivers business seminars on charisma, diversity and inclusion. In her not to be missed Ted Talk, she shows us several examples of how high and low status behaviours have a huge impact on us and our audience.

So if you’re a leader with a great title, why do you care about the “doing of status”? I would offer that if you don’t care about it, you’ll be unconsciously subject to tiny mannerisms like touching your face too often that a) erode your own confidence without your realizing it and b) erode your people’s confidence in you.

In this fast-moving and complex world, do you really want rubbing your chin to get in the way of you leading effectively?

Leadership Metrics – Game Changers for Improving Leadership/Business Effectiveness

What gets measured gets managed/done/improved. This business adage has been burned into the psyche of all business people worth their salt. There is a lot of truth to the saying. As business people, we are very comfortable measuring our performance in sales and production. We’re sophisticated enough to measure our return on investment (ROI) on… Read the full post here

Risking Your Identity to Grow

My colleague Tim Edris and I have the privilege of coaching a senior leadership team through a year-long program called Leader to Leader™ to increase their individual and collective leadership effectiveness. We know empirically that even small increases in overall leadership effectiveness can have a significant positive impact on the business. Many leaders say they… Read the full post here

Just Add Vulnerability

I have a love-hate relationship with math (probably because I am getting worse at it with each passing minute). I do love word formulas, though. They are nice and sticky, as in they are easy to remember and employ. Even my most conflict-averse clients have had success using this structure. Recently a client mustered up… Read the full post here

Feelings: Entertain Them All

The Guest House This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.  A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest… Read the full post here

Three Cheers for Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge (a well known character in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol--Summary here) was a miserable and miserly business owner who seemingly hated Christmas and people.  He’s known for his Bah! Humbug! response to his nephew’s Merry Christmas. In the novel, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited in his dreams by his deceased partner Jacob Marley.  Marley’s ghost… Read the full post here

Leaders: Step Into Your Truth

Fact: Many of the leaders I coach are scared to say what they really think to their people. They withhold facts¹: One of my direct reports is interviewing elsewhere. They withhold thoughts and opinions: I don’t support expanding into the US market right now. They withhold feelings: I feel anger that I was not consulted… Read the full post here

Dear Leader: Where Are You?

Images and metaphor help us tell great stories. They help us explain concepts that we struggle to explain with words alone.   The next 3 minutes could change the way you see the world. Please watch. Now tell me, dear leader…where are you? If your answer is “below the line”, take heart.   Simply notice… Read the full post here

Lean on Me: Partnering to Help Leaders Keep Pace

This week, my writing colleague Louise Campbell interviewed my coaching colleague, Tim Edris of the Emerging Leaders Institute, to get his view on leadership and how it is evolving.   “What got you here won’t get you there,” was coined by business leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith to underscore how leaders need to regularly update the… Read the full post here

Signaling a Lane Change

You’re driving on a fast highway and a car swerves into your lane without any notice.  Your reaction might range from a gentle head shake (tsk, tsk) to jamming on the brakes to ending up in a car crash if you don’t have enough time to react. Signaling a lane change is the law on… Read the full post here

Feedback: A Formula to Face and Embrace

Is feedback important?  We’d all say a resounding, “Yes!” Yet how many of us ever ask for feedback on our leadership? Or ask what’s expected of us, both the spoken and unspoken? And how many of us make giving/getting feedback part of our everyday? Feedback is merely information that helps us know whether we are… Read the full post here