May 29 • 8M

Commander's Intent: Why EM Should Embrace it

The Weekly Round-Up May 29, 2022

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Todd T. DeVoe
This podcast features strategies and advice from today’s leaders and experts in emergency management. Its purpose is to empower and enrich current and future leaders.
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Commander’s Intent: Why Emergency Management Should Embrace It

Extreme Ownership is one of those books that emergency managers have been recommending to each other since Jocko Willink and Leif Babin published it. It is a best-selling leadership book. Frankly, I was not a fan of the book, primarily because of the war stories. As a Greenside Navy veteran, I guess it should have gotten all moto reading of the exploits of life and death and decision making. It was not a bad book, and I got some leadership lessons out of it, and that was that. I like the message that Jacko and Leif have, and in general, they make excellent points in the book. 

It was not until I was invited to attend a Milestone Leadership Summitt where Jacko Willink conducted the workshop that I appreciated Jacko and Leif's work. 

This story did not start out as a day of contemplation and lessons learned. I thought it would be a motivational speaker and more about the books circulating around the room. When I got to the workshop, like most of us in emergency management, I found my way to the back of the room, landed myself at a table with a couple of people I knew, and made sure my coffee was hot. Quickly our table became full of veterans and public safety guys (we gravitated toward each other). Our day of leadership lessons started. 

I was not sure what I would get out of this experience. I was mildly enthusiastic about the event, I always enjoy learning new things, and I liked the book's message. Who can argue with taking Ownership of your team and the decisions you make? 

Okay, I will cut the chase. It was a great workshop. It was not Jacko standing on the stage telling us how cool he was. And he could have pulled that off. He could hold the room. He took the time to break down the concepts in his book and put the why behind each segment.

Now for full disclosure, a lot of what he talks about are principles of leadership that have been taught in the Navy/Marine Corps leadership programs. However, Jacko could break them down, remove the military from the idea and present them to a general audience. That is the beauty of his program. 

Decentralized Command

Let's explore Jacko's idea of Decentralized Command. The concept is simple but hard to execute if you do not build trust with your team. With Decentralized Command, everyone is a leader. 

Last week on the Todd DeVoe Show, Brad Borkan talked about the remarkable leadership of Ernest Shackleton. One of the exciting things about Shackleton's team was its decentralized command structure. In the military, formal leadership is a two-up and two-down. You always have someone in the command structure who can take responsibility for the team. More on this idea later. 

To understand this, decentralization of decision-making is not every person for themselves. Each team member must understand the Intent of the mission. I talk about this with the idea of "commander's intent" in a few lessons and lectures. 

What is Commander's Intent? 

Commander's Intent describes and defines what a successful mission will look like. Military planning begins with the Mission Statement that describes the who, what, when, where, and why (the 5 W's) of how a mission will be executed. Commander's Intent describes how the Commander (read: CEO) envisions the battlefield after the mission. It shows what success looks like. Commander's Intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in the situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan entirely or partially obsolete when executed. The role of the Commander's Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changing environment. Commander's Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance on what a successful conclusion looks like. Commander's Intent is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments.

This moves to the second part of the principle of decentralized command. L. David Marquet's book "Turn the Ship Around!" examines the idea of "I intend to" vs. "May I" when it comes to subordinate decision making. As a leader, you need to strike the right balance between being inside the problem and supporting your team's decision-making.  

Applying the lessons to EM

In emergency management, the situation changes quickly, and teams need to be able to move with ease and without friction. The leaders must be free to get where they are needed the most. 

The emergency manager's role is not just to track each team is doing. You must feed essential information back to the team, and the team should supply you with what is happing in the field. One critical part of this two-way communication, the team in the field or on the project, needs to feel they can ask for clarification without being punished. As a leader of teams, you need to make sure that each team member knows that you are there to open doors and kick down walls for them if needed. 

The key to Commander's Intent

The last part of this idea is the hardest for most leaders. You can always give away authority to your team members. However, you never can give away your responsibility. How do you ensure that your team is successful? The key to Commander's Intent is trained, confident team members. Each team member must understand the plan and when they have to deviate to ensure the Commander's Intent is accomplished. As the teams adapt the plan to meet Commander's Intent, they do not want to change proven processes and other shared work techniques that are part of the plan and strengthen operational outcomes. The plan is often a source of strength; leaders need to adapt only the portions of a plan that require adjustment.

Commander's Intent defines and describes what a successful operation will yield. Good Commander's Intent allows employees and teams to adapt the plan using improvisation, initiative, and adaptation to reach the original plan objectives.

At the end of the day, I got a lot out of attending the program. I got to meet and sit down with Jacko, pick his brain about leadership, and learn how to implement the idea and concepts with the teams that I have been leading. 

What To Read

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