Three little letters that will transform your leadership style

Back when I was a new Supervisor, I got into an argument with someone else’s Manager at a leadership offsite.

His philosophy was this: more work was “a reward” for his subordinates. His view was that when an employee becomes dependable, he gives them more work. As the projects and responsibilities pile up, the employee gets increased visibility in the organization, which leads to even more work, and then more visibility, and so on until eventually the employee is promoted.

And he did all of this without telling his subordinates what he was doing.

This bothered me. A lot.

Not because he’s wrong about the process. In fact, as an Engineer, I experienced a similar sequence of events that led to my promotion to Supervisor.

But my debate with this manager clarified a really important leadership concept that I had been learning: To maximize one’s effectiveness, a leader must not simply order “what”, but explain “why”.


This concept is called leader’s intent. In military circles, they call it Commander’s Intent. It matters because no one (not even elite Special Forces soldiers) can fully contribute to their team unless they know why they’re doing something.

So many of us in Management expect employees to get in line “because I’m the boss and I said so”. I can relate if you’ve ever felt this way, but this remains an ineffective way to lead. You can certainly get compliance by throwing your weight around, but you’ll never get commitment. When you want your team to be with you for the long haul, it’s so much easier when they understand why.

One of my newer employees was once struggling to learn how to operate a tricky piece of hydraulic equipment. Here was the problem: I really needed him operating that particular machine on this particular day. My production goals were aggressive and there was no one I could replace him with, so I needed every single part he could produce to meet my customer’s requirements.

I thought about reassigning him to a lower priority machine that he was comfortable with, but I kept him where he was and explained to him that I wanted him to learn to master this machine. Why? Because this machine set the pace for our entire production line: The better he could operate it, the more we could produce as a team.

I assigned a skilled employee to check in on him periodically, and by the end of the shift, he improved. And so on with the next shift, and the next, until eventually he was so skilled that he became my go-to trainer for new employees on this same machine.

Had I not taken the time to explain that I was purposefully keeping him in a difficult situation so that he could learn a skill that I needed him to have, he would have thought that I was just being a jerk boss. Instead, his entire attitude shifted and he went from struggling to expert.

Imagine that — One short conversation, and this employee was happy to do more work! That is the power of communicating leader’s intent. It changes everything.

If you’re a manager, you may find that once your team understands your intent, they will come up with their own ideas of how to achieve the same objective in a different way.

My perspective is this: If their way is similarly as effective as yours, do it their way. Give them ownership. They will do everything to make their idea succeed and love you forever for letting them try.

But what if you’re not a manager yet?

Dealing with a boss who’s not sharing his or her intent? Here’s a step by step process to be a star individual contributor:

  1. When your boss gives you a new project, first make it clear that you are 100% committed and on board. (Leaders love that).
  2. Ask a few questions to make sure you understand how it fits into the bigger picture — your boss’s objectives, the team’s goals, the company’s bottom line, etc. (Some bosses love this, all of us should).
  3. Think of a few ways you can tweak the way you complete the task so that it better serves the overarching mission. For bonus points, share the ideas with your boss: Hopefully she or he will appreciate that you’re going the extra mile to deliver value.

You’ll be surprised how much more motivated you become, even when you play this trick on yourself.

So if you want to be an effective leader, swallow your pride and explain why. If you want to be an effective follower, ask questions to understand why. No matter which side of leadership you find yourself on, leader’s intent is everything.


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