Commander’s Intent: Living Out the Most Important Part of Life

I’m in the middle of a vacation where I’m spending most of the time on an Air Force base, visiting with my son and his family. Although my head knowledge of military life is substantial, nothing can substitute for actually seeing and living in the experience.


During my observations this week I was reminded of a phrase from Chip and Dan Heath’s first book, Made to Stick: Commander’s Intent. Here are a few excerpts that explain the concept:

Commander’s Intent (CI) is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation.

The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events.

Commander’s Intent manages to align the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play instructions from their leaders. When people know the desired intention, they’re free to improvise, as needed, in arriving there.

A commander could spend a lot of time enumerating every specific task, but as soon as people know what the intent is they begin generating their own solutions.

According to the Heaths, the Combat Maneuver Training Center, the unit in charge of military simulations, recommends that officers arrive at the Commander’s Intent by asking themselves two questions:

If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must ___________________________.

The single, most important thing that we must do tomorrow is ______________________.

When an officer understands this, and is able to communicate this core idea to his troops, the probability of success increases.

When an officer is vague about this, or fails to communicate the core idea to his troops, failure is inevitable.

Unlike the officers and airmen I’m observing this week, most of our daily lives don’t have national security ramifications.

It doesn’t mean that our core ideas have any less significance for our lives.

What Commander’s Intent are you following?


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