Lessons from the military on creating highly effective teams

‘Leadership by intent’ has been described as the leadership technique that can best contribute to making organisations more adaptable and effective. That it can create an environment of employee empowerment. That it can help businesses thrive in environments that are increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

In this article, I describe what leadership by intent is and where it comes from. However, the most interesting part is why it works so well, and the neuroscience of why it works.

What is leading by intent?

It is perhaps David Marquet, in his book ‘Turn the Ship Around‘, that has made famous the phrase of ‘leading by intent’.

This short 10 minute video sums up the essential message of the book. Which is basically; don’t tell people what to do. Tell them the intent and let them figure out the rest.

The book tells a convincing story. Summed up, it says the following – David Marquet took command of the Santa Fe submarine, rated as the worst performing in the US navy fleet. Marque implements Leadership by intent. The submarine becomes the best performing in the fleet.

“Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.” – David Marquet

Of course, leading by intent is nothing new.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – Juliet, Romeo & Juliet.

Or as they eloquently say in the military “same shit, different wrapping”.

In modern NATO militaries (USA, Canada, UK, Norway etc…) ‘leading by intent’ is referred to as ‘mission command’. Which in turn is just a modern name for the concept Auftragstaktik developed by the Prussian army during the 19th century.

What is mission command?

According to Wikipedia: Mission command, is a style of military command, derived from the Prussian-pioneered mission-type tactics doctrine, which combines centralized intent with decentralized execution subsidiarity and promotes freedom and speed of action, and initiative, within defined constraints. Subordinates, understanding the commander’s intentions, their own missions and the context of those missions, are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved. They then decide within their delegated freedom of action how best to achieve their missions. Orders focus on providing intent, control measures, and objectives, allowing for greater freedom of action by subordinate commanders.

It is often advocated by not always used by NATO militaries like USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, Australia etc…

One can find a great description of Mission Command, and how its principles can be applied to modern work place management and business in Stephan Bungay’s, Art of Action.

German Wehrmacht Blitzkrieg during WW2 is the quintessential example of auftragstaktik or mission-command.

My 2 cents…

For me, Leading by intent is all about telling people what to achieve, while giving them boundaries (time, resources etc…). You explain the intention, the end-goal, and they go about doing it in the way they see fit. You explain the why, they work out the how.

You, as a leader, have to facilitate by ensuring they understand the goal (the intent, the why), and their boundaries and you have to give them the support (resources) they need.

One thing people often forget to mention with Mission Command is that it assumes people are competent at what they are doing. Mission Command will not really work if you employ it with poorly motivated individuals or with people with little competence.

Cleaning in the military

Let me give you a simple example.

I remember one of the first leadership lessons I learnt at the very start of my military career. It goes all the way back to my basic infantry training when I was a recruit.

I remember being a squad leader and being in charge of cleaning and administration of weapons and equipment after a field exercise. You can imagine the scene. A huge military equipment depot hall, filled with tired and dirty recruits hobbling about, trying to avoid putting pressure on the blisters on their feet.

After a field exercise one spends hours, sometimes days, cleaning weapons and equipment making sure everything is in order.

So here I was, in charge of getting weapons and equipment cleaned and ready for inspection. As a recruit my performance was being measured, so I was eager to get everything done as well and as quickly as possible.

I had spent my teenage years in the cadets at school and had shot at national competitions, so I knew a thing or two about cleaning weapons. So, I started telling people how to clean their rifles. “Do this….” and “Do that…” But I soon found that telling people exactly how to clean a weapon didn’t really work.

People would do as I said, but they didn’t really understand why they were doing it. They also felt belittled. “It’s only cleaning, how hard can it be?” they would say. “Trust me” I would say, “this way is better”. And so, they would do it my way, but they wouldn’t really do it very well.

I soon worked out that people often performed better and quicker when they did it their own way. Of course, you give them tips and tricks and showed them other methods but at the end of the day they had to work out the best technique for themselves.

What I discovered was that people doing things their own way, using an ok (say 80%) technique would often execute their method at about 100%. However, If I got them to do it my way (which was perhaps the optimal solution, say 100%) they would normally execute at about a level of 0 – 70%.

The lesson is the following. An ok (or even bad) plan well executed is better than a great plan badly executed.

This is one of the most important lessons I learned from the military, which I learnt simply by leading people cleaning. The same principle applied to more complex tasks, I later went on to lead things of far higher complexity like hugely complex analysis processes supporting brigade operations (several thousand men and hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment).

I learnt that Leading-by-intent is all about telling people what to achieve within constraints (time, resources, boundaries). Then they figure out how. You give them the why, the intent the end goal. They figure out the rest, and you support them when they do it.

Why does it work?

This a question I have been pondering for a number for years. Why does leadership by intent work so well?

In my military education ‘mission-command’ was drilled into us. I have also read the books that espouse mission command. Art of Action, by Stephan Bungay. Mission Command an Anthology. All the work of John Boyd. To name a just a few…

There are a number of traditional argumenta as to why it works so well. Like, for example, people that are on the frontline have more information. Thus, they are better informed, and have a better basis for making an informed decisions.

But on a deeper level I have always wondered why giving someone a goal and explaining the intention seems to work so well as a leadership technique.

I have always been naturally curious. I have never been able to remember much of what I don’t understand. As such, I have always been interested to understand why does leadership-by-intent work so well.

Recently, I started trying to find neuroscientific literature on leadership.

At first, I didn’t really find anything of interest.

But then I came across some other research into cognition and intent. When I read it a light went on in my head! It had found some research that finally answered this question for me.

So why does leading by intent work so well?

Let me give you the answer in one sentence. It is because our brains are wired to think in terms of intent and goals!

Many mechanisms of the brain work in terms of goal direction.

For example, imagine you are sitting at a bar. You turn to your left and you see a man lifting a glass of beer. Somehow you know that he is going to drink from the glass. But how?

Well according to, this research, they argue that many of the neural mechanisms in our brains are geared to understanding the world around us through goals and intent.

The academic paper is by Giovanni Pezzulo, Cristiano Castelfranchi and published in The Journal Psychological Research. They describe that:

“Converging evidence indicates that several cognitive capabilities across the individual and social domains, including action planning and execution, understanding others’ intentions, cooperation and imitation are essentially goal-directed.”

Research in a number for fields seems to be coming to the same conclusions. Fields such as, but not restricted to, neuroscience, computational neuroscience, psychology, biology and cognitive robotics.

Incredibly, two cognitive systems in the brain, perception and action cannot be disentangled.

According to this Neuroscience paper, the way we construct reality in our heads is an elegant evolutionary solution. It is a solution that allows us to perceive what is going on around us, plan our goals, and then put these into action.

“distal representation [reality as we perceive it in our minds] has evolved as a solution to the problem of developing a representational scheme for the planning of goal-directed action. Action planning has been the problem, common coding has been the solution, and reality has come as a by-product of the solution.”

The illusion of the world around us

A great example of how we create reality in our heads is that which we see. The picture we create of the world in our heads. This picture is an artificial construction.

Our eyes are in constant motion. Yet, the picture of the world we have in our mind remains stable. How does this happen?

Well, neuroscientists have discovered that inputs from the eyes are suppressed when we move our eyes.

This means we don’t register image blur that would otherwise occur. Our visual world is perceived mostly during fixations, the short periods of time (approximately 200-300 milliseconds long) when the eyes are stationary. Which is surprisingly small percentage of the time (10 -20% while reading).

Without the brain constantly computing as a visual processor, the visual information we receive through our eyes would remain a chaotic, jumpy mess.

Corrective neurological mechanisms account for our eyes’ movements. Visual memory and attention work together to allow a fluid transition from one source of information to the next.

In combination, these processes allow our brain to create our perception of a coherent, stable visual world. Read more here.

Why does the brain do this?

Why do we see a flower when we look at it? We could just as well see, for example, light rays, retinal excitation patterns, spikes traveling along our nerves or patterns of chemical or electrical activity in various parts of our visual cortex.

However, if we interpreted the world this way then there would be no way to plan the future in terms of what is going on around us. This way of perceiving the world allows us to predict what is going to happen and plan actions accordingly.

It is because this is the most optimal solution to allow us to achieve our goals.

Let me give another example of how the brain is wired to think in terms of goals.

Imitation behaviour & Fly fishing

Let’s use the example of learning how to fly fish.

Imagine I am watching my teacher cast and I am trying to imitate this behaviour.

My brain doesn’t simply observe the movement as a whole and try to copy it. What really happens is that my brain decomposes it into its separate parts.

These aspects are ordered into a hierarchy (with the no. 1 aspect becoming the main goal). The other aspects become the sub goals. In fly fishing it might look like something like this:

  1. Main goal – Get the bloody fly into the water (without getting is stuck in the bush, again)

Sub goals –

  1. Stance
  2. Grip
  3. Line On Finger
  4. Elbow Set
  5. Pickup
  6. Back cast
  7. Forward Cast

Imitation behaviour is guided by cognitively specified goals. The main goal, and subsequent goals, activates the motor programme that is most strongly associated with achieving the particular goal.

When people and animals imitate others, what they end up doing only sometimes looks the same as that which they are copying. But what is almost always the same is the main goal executed by the imitator.

Key take-away here is that animals and humans imitate using the mechanism of goals. This way of thinking, thinking in goals, activates ‘action sequences’ available to the brain.

Mirror neurons

We even have specialised neurons dedicated to the understanding of the actions of others and imitation. These are called mirror neurons.

Some neuroscientist argue that the mirror-neuron system might explain the human capacity to learn by imitation.

Another neuroscience paper argues that understanding the actions of others is essential if we want to survive. Furthermore, without action understanding, social organisation is impossible.  Some neuroscientists argue that these processes work through mirror neurons.

Key take-away from neuroscience

What the science tells us

Here are just a few of the key take-aways from the research. These findings come from research into neuroscience, psychology, biology and cognitive robotics.

  • We understand other people’s behaviour through goals and intentions.
  • The way we create reality in our heads is designed to allow us to attain our goals.
  • We also imitate behaviour through understanding goals and intentions.
  • The neural pathways of perception and action cannot be separated.
  • We understand the behaviour of others through the filter of intent and goals

Bringing it back to leadership

At a fundamental level our brains are wired to think in terms of goals and intent. It is no wonder then that leadership by intent works so well.

Our brains perceive reality through goals and intent. We understand, imitate and learn behaviour of others through goals and intent. We select actions by thinking about attaining goals.

It thus makes complete sense that leadership through intent should works so well. We are communicating in a way the brain understands. In a way that stimulates the brain to work the way it is designed to work.

Furthermore, It facilitates for interpersonal cooperation. People understand the behaviour of others around them better if they have a shared common purpose everyone is working towards.

So next time someone tells you “mission-command or leading by intent is just for the military” then you can reply “No, it is for anyone with a brain!”.

by Frederick Fladmark

military frederickFrederick M Fladmark was an officer in the Norwegian Army for over 7 years, deploying twice to Afghanistan.

He supported Norwegian & US Special Operation Forces in Kabul. He has led soldiers in the extreme arctic winters of Norther Norway. He has worked with military units including Norwegian Telemark Bataljon, US/NATO Special Forces, SOJTF-A, Norwegian FOH, among others.

Frederick now helps organisations thrive in complex environments.

The modern-day military is one the best at adapting to complex, dynamic environments. Frederick takes the best and most suitable methods from the modern-day military and helps implement them in your business. So, your business can adapt and thrive in complex environments.

At an organisational level he helps organisations become more adaptable and agile. At the team level he helps develop highly effective teams that have the right dynamic specific to the demands of their context. At the leadership level he helps mentor and develop leaders so that they can thrive in complex situations.

Connect with Frederick on LinkedIn here.



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