RearAdmiral-Cynthia M. Thebaud

Commander’s Intent

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership, 3-LI

RearAdmiral-Cynthia M. Thebaud


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-sharp 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 from the top brass on down live out every day. 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.

Clarity of values and living out those values important because decisions are made based on values and context. The context is the mission at hand. And when the Commander’s intent is known, battlefield  adjustments and decisions to change tactics, can be made quickly by falling back on the values.

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, living out those values. Unlike the military, we in the civilian sector do not send employees to boot camp to break them down then rebuild them instilling our values. Worse, we hire for technical skills rather than for values and culture fit.

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. Paying little to no attention to values, vision, and mission leads to poor performance at best.

Failure of Leadership

Why do I say that? 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.)

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 the command-and-control organization will not survive long term. If they do survive, there will be continuous employee turnover. 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 consistently lived out everyday values. Next, those values need to underpin a compelling vision. The CEO of the organization should view her one main job to be actively managing the corporate culture.

I believe we are moving into a decade (the 2020s) of chaos and turmoil. Only fast moving, adaptive organizations will survive.

Intent-Based Leadership:

Post updated 7/2020 to add Leadership Is Language