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The One Question All Great Leaders Answer

How do you know when your football team is ready? When everybody knows what they are doing and why they are doing it.  ~Bill Belichick,  Head Coach, New England Patriots

Lack of clarity creates confusion and chaos on a team or organization.  This leads to emotions, frustration and produces disengagement poisonous to bottom line results. The great Athenian leader Pericles once said:  Having knowledge but lacking the power to express it clearly is no better than never having the idea at all.

I respect Bill Belichick as a man, and as arguably one of the greatest football coaches in history.  I believe he has it right, in the above quote, when he says a team is ready when they have clarity about what they are to do and why they are doing it.  Quite simply this is the definition of “Commander’s Intent”.  

Clarity and Commander's Intent

Commander’s Intent is a simple, clear, written-out description of what mission success looks like.  It generally does not describe how a mission is to be accomplished but only what the mission itself entails.  How the mission is to be carried out is generally left to subordinates.

Commander’s Intent succinctly describes what constitutes success for the operation.  It includes the operation’s purpose and the conditions that define the desired end state.  Some believe it is not essential to articulate why the mission is being carried out.  However, I believe it is extremely important that “why” be a part of Commander’s Intent.  This is important for two reasons:

  1. The knowledge of “why” enhances the ability of subordinates to make the correct and more informed judgment when adjustments need to be made.

  2. Knowing “why” contributes to the commitment of subordinates.

Commander’s Intent allows employees and teams to adapt the plan using improvisation and initiative to reach the planned objectives.  An empowered organization is one that trusts and encourages people to act and adapt operating plans to changing circumstances as long as they augment and align with the Commander’s Intent.

Never tell a person how to do something.  Tell them only your expectations and you will be surprised by their ingenuity.   ~General George S. Patton


The principle of Commander’s Intent, carried out by a leader, is perhaps one of the most effective tools available in building an actively engaged workforce.  Hire people who are competent, trustworthy, and work hard, then empower them to carry out how to accomplish the mission.  Your job as a leader is to provide clarity about your expectations, then get out of their way.  And, don’t forget to communicate “why” they are on the mission to begin with.

See our essay on Organizational Clarity to learn more about the importance of leadership clarity.


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