RearAdmiral-Cynthia M. Thebaud

Commander’s Intent


Military leaders know that battle plans do not survive the first shot. In other words, the enemy has a vote in your best made plans. Reality has a way of modifying our relatively petty human plans!

With that in mind, military leaders make sure that there is crystal-clear, sharp-as-a-tack clarity on the commanders’ intent for the mission. When it becomes obvious that the details of the tactical plan do not meet the realities of the situation, leadership all the way down to the troops on the front line can adjust. But how do they adjust? They do so in a way that makes sure that they achieve the commander’s intention for the overall mission.


The military has a bit of an advantage over our civilian sector businesses. Each branch of the military has a set of values that they insist everyone live out every day. From the top brass to the troops on the front line. Yes, there are some failures. And those failures are sometimes not addressed in a timely manner. No one and no organization is perfect. However, overall, the military is very good at defining and living up to their stated values.

That’s important because decisions are made based on values and context. The context is the mission at hand and the military structure. And when the Commander’s intent is known, battlefield reality forcing a change in plans will not stop the mission. Instead, decisions will be made to alter the plan so that the mission is accomplished.

Civilian Sector

Many (most?) private businesses in the civilian sector struggle with values and vision. Oh, yes, there is often a list of values such as: Integrity, Quality, Transparency, Accountability, etc. The problem is having the organization, at every level, faithfully living out those values.

Vision is another challenge for private sector businesses. Making more profit is not a compelling vision for the average employee. If anything, the vision or mission of increasing shareholder value is demotivating. Is there any wonder why 70% of U.S. employees are disengaged? This is a failure of leadership.

Failure of Leadership

Why do I say that? It’s simple, actually. Increasingly, for an organization to survive in today’s constantly changing economy, it must be nimble and quick. And, to be nimble and quick, it must make decisions quickly. Decisions are made based on values and context. The values must be real — that is, the organization must actually live them every day. The values must be enforced from the top down. Employees must be let go if they do not affirm, promote and exemplify the values.

The context in which we make decisions is the organization’s culture. Is the culture command-and-control or intent based? If it is command-and-control, then decisions will be slow and based on one person’s view. That is to say, when someone on the “front line” runs into a problem, they will report the situation up the chain of command and then wait for direction to come back down that chain. Of course, that works as long as there is time and the communication channel is open. But what if there isn’t time, or you are “cut off” from leadership — perhaps a natural disaster has cut off communication (think hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, etc.) Does your team understand the Vision and Mission? Can they perform without you?

IBL Culture

Intent Based Leadership (IBL) provides maximum autonomy for employees. It pushes control (decision making) out to where the information exists. For an IBL organization to work, it is critical that there be clarity of values and vision as well as technical competency. Communication is also critical. There must be continuous, accurate communication up, down and across the team and organization.

Properly implemented, IBL ensures that there will be maximum flexibility to respond to the disruptions in our economy and marketplaces. We should make no mistake about the fact that our competition has a vote in our strategic plan.

Effective Leadership

I believe that it will be rare for the command-and-control organization to survive long term. In today’s fast paced environment, we need everyone on the team to be thinking and responding to the marketplace. In other words, I believe that IBL organizations have the best chance of being sustainable long term. So, how do we do go about creating an IBL organization?

Easier said than done of course. However, here, in a nutshell is how to create such an organization. First, leadership must establish real values. Not lip-service values. “Real” means values that are consistently lived out every day. Next, those values need to underpin a compelling vision.  That vision has to inspire people to greatness and is part of the context for decision making — will this decision be worthy of our vision? Finally, control must be given to those who are closest to the information — autonomy.

The true test of an excellent leader is in the sustainability of the organization she has lead — after she has exited. That requires that the values be deeply driven into the fabric of the organization and its leadership team. I believe that a sustainable company in the future will be an IBL company. Further, I believe that the only significant “job” a CEO/Leader has is to actively manage the organization’s culture.