Great Leaders Give Direction Not Directions

In the military, this approach is known as commander’s intent.

A few weeks ago, I opened a post with a story about one of my favorite questions for leaders, “What is it that only you can do?” Since then, I’ve asked that question again in one of my last keynotes of the year and got an answer back that was so clear and succinct that I just had to share it with you.

The answer I received back from an executive in the room is actually the title of this post, “Great leaders give direction, not directions.” I loved that not just for the clever play on words but also because it’s true. I believe it so much that I wrote a whole chapter on the topic in my book, The Next Level. The chapter title is “Pick Up Defining What to Do; Let Go of Telling How to Do It.”

In other words, give direction, not directions. In the military, they describe this approach as commander’s intent. If you want to see a great example of that, take a look at the letter that former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps four-star general Jim Mattis wrote to his Marines the day before they crossed the Line of Departure in the 2003 Gulf War.

Mattis’ letter is a model of expressing commander’s intent. You don’t need to be a military leader to apply this practice. If you want to get more done faster and grow your team in the process, you need to turn them loose. That’s not to say you just tell them to do whatever they want. Remember, that although you’re not giving explicit directions, you are providing clear direction. There’s a big difference. Here are three critical steps to doing this effectively.

Set the context. The first step is to connect the task or project to the bigger picture. In Mattis’ example, the bigger picture was to enforce international laws and norms by kicking Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait following Iraq’s unwarranted invasion of Kuwait. By setting the context, leaders define the most important purpose of the work. They focus on not just the minds but the hearts of their people by sharing a compelling case for why their work matters.

Share the “so that…” This is where the expression of intent gets more granular and tangible. The formation is “We’re going to do this thing, so that this specific and particular objective is accomplished.” Providing the “so that” gives people the guidance they need to make decisions in the moment rather than checking back for directions as plans and conditions change (as they always do). “So that” gives people the knowledge they need to keep going until the objective is accomplished.

Make the boundaries explicit. This third step is what keeps bad things from happening. By making boundaries explicit, great leaders essentially say, “To accomplish the objective, you can do everything you need to do except things that betray our values and norms or exceed our resources or authority.” Of course, that means the leader needs to invest time, day after day and year over year, to make values and norms explicit and, in the case of particular tasks or objectives, make sure that everyone understands the extent of their resources and authority.

That’s my breakdown of the basics of how great leaders give direction, not directions. What does your experience tell you? What have I missed? What would you add?