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Military Principles Applied to Financial Organizations
Remember and Apply the Commander’s Intent

I continue to believe that certain aspects of military good order and discipline are extremely applicable to any high-performing organization. The past two years we at TAG Resources have implemented several different facets of the military with great success. What I’d like to do in this brief article is expound on the “Commander’s Intent,” i.e., what exactly this is, how it is used on the battlefield, and how it translates into the boardroom.

When I was deployed to Iraq in 2011, I was embedded, primarily, with the Army and the 18th Airborne Corps. They were a truly passionate organization, committed to the Commanding General at the time General Lloyd Austin. Gen. Austin was a towering man who radiated personality, only major problem was he couldn’t be everywhere all the time to give his vision and overarching purpose as the commander. This is where the Commander’s (CC) Intent comes into play. The Army definition of the CC’s intent is as follows:

The commander’s intent describes the desired end state. It is a concise expression of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander. . . It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on the desired end state. Its utility is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept of operations no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end. 1

By having this intent documented and published, Gen. Austin need not fret about his ability to be everywhere, all the time. His intent was clearly understood at least two echelon’s below his chain of command, and they in turn would fashion all of their operations based upon this guidance. The CC’s intent has the ability to unify from the top down the entire unit and link what are seemingly separate functions into a cohesive goal…truly amazing to see. Why doesn’t the commander go all the way down to the lowest level to explain how to accomplish the mission? Two reasons 1) he doesn’t have the ground-floor expertise, and 2) he recognizes the chaos of the combat environment and gives the lower level supervisors the flexibility to accomplish the mission given their “closeness to the fight.”

How does this apply to the private sector? At TAG, we encourage our team to know their boss, what his or her overarching vision is, and plot out the steps to achieve that vision. If you’re the leader, this means that you need to communicate your intent for the company without dictating step by step what to do do (leadership style I refer to as active engagement). We follow Patton’s advice: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” While “never” may be a strong word (there are obvious times where you do need to tell some folks how to do it), I think you get the point about the CC’s intent.

There is a different kind of chaos surrounding the CEO and/or senior leader versus what the commander faces, but the same parameters apply: you’re not as close to the fight, so why not give your supervisors the flexibility to accomplish the vision by simply giving them overarching intent? Dynamic and demanding business environments are changing in massive ways nearly overnight. Utilizing the CC intent approach, when the “battlefield” changes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and give a new intent every few weeks. Once the mission is achieved, you document the “lessons learned” and help formulate a better game plan each time. The senior executives learn, the supervisors learn, and the front line technicians also learn. The organization gains stronger efficiencies throughout the process.  

I think this method of outlining the vision, ensuring it’s understood, and allowing your folks to figure out how best to get there stimulates innovation and frees them up to achieve greater success than the leadership ever thought possible.  


1U.S Army (2003) Field Manual 6.0 – Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of the Army. Available at: http://www.dtic.mil/dticasd/sbir/sbir043/a30a.pdf

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