Commanders Intent

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." - General George S. Patton

A Commanders Intent is a tool used by the leaders of our armed forces to define and articulate a goal for a particular mission. The Commanders Intent provides the big picture of what a successful operation and outcome will look like.  It is not a prescriptive document, rather it states the objective and  provides general parameters to guide and shape the strategy and tactics, while leaving the details to subordinates.  The Commanders Intent states the end goal, and allows the troops to do what needs to get done to accomplish it.

A Commanders Intent consists of three components:

  1. details critical information (who, what, where, when, why)
  2. the ideal end state
  3. conditions under which operations should cease
With just this basic information our personnel should be able to make the best strategic and tactical decisions to accomplish the goal.  There is no need for, or room to, micromanage every step of the operation or decision that is made.

To confidently and reliably issue a Commanders Intent relies on trust. The leadership must trust that the employee can make the right decisions, and the employee must trust that the leadership will not punish for bad decisions made.  With the many differing backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints of personnel within the modern day fire service, and the litigious society we live in, perhaps trust has become an area we are most lacking in.  This is why we see micromanagement, and write policies and procedures that are very prescriptive based - describing every action or step to be taken for a given situation or set of circumstances. 

In his book, The Navy SEAL Art of War, Rob Roy lists 5 ways that trust can be achieved:
  1. Commit to hiring the right people.
  2. Make people accountable to one another.
  3. Clearly and frequently articulate expectations.
  4. Give employees decision-making power.
  5. Give employees an ownership stake.
[ For a practical exercise for building trust within the organization see, Circle of Safety - Does Your Organization Have It? ]

 What would our operations and leadership look like if we took the Commanders Intent approach and trusted our personnel to accomplish the goal? 

"SEALs know that the unbending bedrock of these concepts is trust.  To confidently convey intent without micromanaging it, a leader must implicitly trust that his followers are properly manned, planned, and equipped to handle the mission." - Rob Roy

Additional Resources