The Commander’s (Leader’s) Intent


HesburghVisionWithout a clear understanding of what the boss wants, organizations will inevitably fail to achieve it. Without the gift of mind reading, success depends on the boss clearly communicating what he wants. This holds true regardless of the nature of the organizations, its size or purpose. Church leaders, business executives, managers, and heads of families could take a lesson from an enterprise that literally depends on communicating intent to save lives.

The military understands that the absence of a clear understanding of the commander’s intent, for any given operation, could result in the unnecessary death of people. The U.S. Army’s manual on the operations process emphasizes this by connecting the commander’s intent to everything about an operation including how the staff plans operations, the disciplined initiative of subordinate commanders when the plan changes, and the level of risk that is appropriate to achieve the ends state.

The commander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned (ARDP 5-0, Pg 1-5 )

Several principles govern the creation of intent:

  1. Commanders (substitute any leader as necessary) must have a vision (end state)
  2. Commanders must create and communicate intent by describing the components of their vision on their own. I have been in too many planning meetings where the boss asks the staff to come up with the intent; this is a responsibility that cannot be delegated.
  3. The intent must be concise and easy to remember, the shorter the better.
  4. The intent should be understood two levels below the commander. In Army terms, a brigade commander will frame intent so that a company commander understands it.
  5. Intent will provide the framework for action, shared understanding and focus until the end state is achieved

“The very essence of leadership is [that] you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”— Theodore Hesburgh

With these principles in place, a commander can frame their intent using three components: Expanded purpose statement, list of key tasks, and statement of end state

  1. Expanded Purpose. The Army communicates purpose, or why an action is taken, in the mission statement of an operation order. The expanded purpose gives the context beyond why an action is planned by addressing the strategic implications to success and how it affects other parts of the organization.
  2. Key tasks. A brief list of activities required to achieve the desired end state. Staffs use the key task list to ensure the development of suitable and acceptable plans. When situations changes and significant opportunities present themselves, subordinates use the key tasks to focus their efforts to take initiative and achieve the end state.
  3. End state. Similar to a vision statement, the end state statement in more descriptive in describing the conditions that will exist when the organization has successfully met the commander’s intent. Write the description of end state in present tense as if everything has been actualized and the organization has achieved the best possible outcome.

Extract from the U.S. Army doctrine reference publication (ARDP) 5-0

2-92. The commander’s intent succinctly describes what constitutes success for the operation. It includes the operation’s purpose, key tasks, and the conditions that define the end state. It links the mission, concept of operations, and tasks to subordinate units. A clear commander’s intent facilitates a shared understanding and focuses on the overall conditions that represent mission accomplishment. During execution, the commander’s intent spurs disciplined initiative.

2-93. The commander’s intent must be easy to remember and clearly understood by leaders and Soldiers two echelons lower in the chain of command. The shorter the commander’s intent, the better it serves these purposes. Commanders develop their intent statement personally using the following components:
•Expanded purpose.
•Key tasks.
•End state.

2-94. When describing the expanded purpose of the operations, the commander’s intent does not restate the “why” of the mission statement. Rather, it addresses the broader purpose of the operations and its relationship to the force as a whole.

2-95. Key tasks are those activities the force must perform as a whole to achieve the desired end state. Key tasks are not specified tasks for any subordinate unit; however, they may be sources of implied tasks. Acceptable courses of action accomplish all key tasks. During execution—when significant opportunities present themselves or the concept of operations no longer fits the situation—subordinates use key tasks to keep their efforts focused on achieving the desired end state. Examples of key tasks include terrain the force must control or an effect the force must have on the enemy.

2-96. The end state is a set of desired future conditions the commander wants to exist when an operation is concluded. Commanders describe the operation’s end state by stating the desired conditions of the friendly force in relationship to desired conditions of the enemy, terrain, and civil considerations. A clearly defined end state promotes unity of effort among the force and with unified action partners.

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Greg Chaney

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