Leadership Principle #2 – Clarify Objectives and Intent

Some years ago the Canadian Army adopted a modus operandi called “mission command”.  Put simply, Mission Command means that the boss no longer tells people how to do things, but rather what must be achieved.  It creates an environment where subordinates can use their initiative and creativity while continuing to ensure that everyone is working towards the same end.  It also allows for a much faster business cycle as subordinates are empowered and enabled to make sound decisions “on the spot” without having to take the time to report back to their boss and get permission to take action.

The first challenge of a Mission Command approach is ensuring that everyone understands what end they are working towards.  That in itself can be difficult.  The second is ensuring that everyone understands the limits on their freedom of action.  The objective may be to win the contract, but there are certain things that must be done (e.g. protecting Intellectual Property Rights) and certain things that must not be done (e.g. dropping below a certain profit margin).  You won’t be sleeping well if you are not confident that your staff knows what these are.

A mentor of mine once described a leader’s chief responsibility as “bringing order out of chaos”.   There is a lot of truth in that.  Human beings function best when they feel that they understand their environment and what is expected of them.  As a leader, that means making your objective and intent crystal clear to your staff.  That’s hard work.  It can be a bit scary too.  In preparing to take a Mission Command approach, consider the following:

  • In general terms, what does success in this issue look like for my organization as a whole?
  • In greater detail, what does success in this issue look like for my boss?
  • How does my team’s task fit into those definitions of success?
  • What have my team and I been told to do?
  • What are the things that nobody has explicitly told us to do, but which my team and I know that we must do to achieve success?
  • What are the restrictions on our freedom of action?
    • legal?
    • policy?
    • budget?
    • people?
    • schedule?
    • performance?
  • Do I have the best answers available to the above questions?
  • How will I know that my team fully understands my objective and intent?
  • How will I know that my understanding of my objective and intent is in line with my boss’ expectations?

Whether in business, in government or in not-for-profits, today’s working environment is characterized by demands for ever-faster response in situations of ever-greater complexity. In this environment the leader who can clearly communicate their objective and intent will find their team’s performance to be much, much higher than that of a team led by a leader who cannot or will not do this.  And your team will be a lot happier too!

Does your organization use this approach? If not, what would happen if it was adopted? What challenges are you facing in communicating your objective and intent?  Let’s talk about it.