Does Your Team Know What You Want? Clarify Your Intent with These 4 Steps

The turning of the calendar page from one year to the next is an opportunity to start the new year with a clear and focused plan for your team or organization. Yet, if you’re like many leaders, you not only find it hard to establish a clear strategy for the year, you find it difficult to keep all your team members aligned and moving forward to achieve the goals. If this predicament is familiar, you have the opportunity to clarify your leadership intent for the year.

What is a ‘leadership intent’? It’s my variation on the concept of a ‘commander’s intent.’ In military parlance, a commander’s intent is the purpose and goal of a given order from a leader to their troops. It provides clear direction and the boundaries of operation for the troops to carry out the commander’s intent.

In his book, Call Sign Chaos, retired General and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, details how young Marine officers are taught to convey a clear intent so that it passed intact through layers of leadership down to the front lines. In the heat of battle, where communication can be difficult and circumstances can change rapidly, it’s imperative that every soldier be crystal clear on the intended outcomes of the mission.

Regardless of the type of organization you lead—a military unit, business, or non-profit —a clear leadership intent sets the course for getting all your team members on the same page for achieving the outcomes you desire. The formula of a clear leadership intent is:

Leadership Intent = The ‘why’ of the strategy + A clear picture of the end state

There are four characteristics of a clear leadership intent:

1. It conveys the ‘why’ of the strategy—A shared understanding of the ‘why’ of the strategy allows your team members to understand the big picture, which allows them to take ownership of their given responsibilities. Anyone who has ever questioned the ‘why’ behind a decision and been told “just do it, you don’t need to know why,” understands how demoralizing and unempowering that can be. Knowing the ‘why’ empowers your team members to make decisions, independent of your direction, that lead them closer to achieving the goal.

2. It provides a clear picture of the end state—My experience has shown that one of the primary reasons we fail to accomplish our goals is a lack of clarity on exactly what we’re trying to achieve. We can get so twisted up in trying to set the perfect SMART goal that we fail to clearly paint the picture of the end state. A clear understanding of the end state enables team members to understand what needs to happen next in order to move closer to achieving the goal.

To illustrate the value of conveying the ‘why’ of the strategy and painting a clear picture of the end state, Mattis recounts the example of the legendary World War II British field commander, Viscount Slim. Deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Slim’s troops were vastly outnumbered by the Japanese, often out of radio contact with him for days or weeks at a time. In his book, Defeat into Victory, Slim describes the value of having a clear leader’s intent:

“Commanders at all levels had to act more on their own; they were given greater latitude to work out their own plans to achieve what they knew was the Army Commander’s intention. In time they developed to a marked degree a flexibility of mind and a firmness of decision that enabled them to act swiftly to take advantage of sudden information or changing circumstances without reference to their superiors…This acting without orders, in anticipation of orders, or without waiting for approval yet always within the overall intention, must become second nature in any form of warfare.”

3. It conveys the essential details—By the very definition of providing a clear end state, a leader’s intent should provide the essential details, and only the essential details. Resist the urge to micromanage by providing too many details. Micromanaging thwarts initiative and creates dependency on you, the leader. A key to achieving your team’s or organization’s goal is to create acceleration within your team. You want team members to take responsibility for owning the goal and developing their own plans for executing against that goal. Burdening your team with too many details or conditions handcuffs them from acting independently. Your goal as a leader is to orchestrate and synchronize the efforts of your team, not to control them.

4. It is written with ‘will’ statements—Rather than condensing your strategic plan or goals into a PowerPoint slide with fancy charts or graphs that may leave room for interpretation, try going old school and write out your leadership intent with very clear ‘will’ statements. A clear statement of your intent focuses on ‘what’ you’re trying to achieve and the ‘why,’ but refrains from telling your team ‘how’ to achieve the goal. A good leadership intent statement includes an ‘in order to’ phrase that crystallizes the measure of success.

For example, “We will attack that bridge in order to cut off the enemy’s escape” is a clear leadership intent. It describes the ‘what’ (attack the bridge), the ‘why,’ and measure of success (to cut off the enemy’s escape). If the troops seize the bridge but allow the enemy to escape, the mission is a failure. However, a troop commander acting under clear intent will adjust their actions to cut off the enemy’s escape regardless of whether the bridge is captured.

The length of a written leadership intent need only be as long as necessary to clearly convey your message. It may be a single sentence, a few bullet points, a paragraph, or an entire page, all depending upon the scope of your strategy or goal.

A clear leadership intent has the potential to align your team around the key outcomes you want them to achieve. But it requires a few prerequisites. First, trust must be present up and down the chain of command. Leaders need to trust their team members to act responsibly within the boundaries of the stated intent, and team members need to trust their leaders to provide them with all the information they need to make smart decisions. Second, leaders must be tolerant of mistakes. Empowering your team to make decisions means that occasionally they may get it wrong. If you punish people for taking risks, you’ll create a culture of risk-aversion. Instead, treat mistakes as learning moments and view them as an opportunity to teach and develop your team. Finally, discipline and accountability need to be alive and well. Team members need to be disciplined to act in alignment with the leader’s intent, and when team members stray, leaders need to hold them accountable for their actions.

As you head into a new year, consider making your leadership intent explicit with your team. Provide them a clear picture of the end goal, a solid understanding of the purpose of the strategy, and enough details that enable them to make the next right decisions to accomplish the mission.

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