Got Commander’s Intent? A Key to Great Leadership

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.


  1. Rodney Payne on June 6, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Well put. I’d add that it isn’t just times of uncertainty that cause the split in approaches. I find also in times of stress or fatigue that managers will move back to their default managerial style.

    • Lisa on June 12, 2017 at 7:39 am

      Excellent point!

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