How the Leader-Leader model turns Commander’s Intent upside down

If you’ve heard me speak in recent months, it won’t come as a surprise when I say that L. David Marquet’s Turn the ship around! [1] has become a favourite book. It’s the story of how Marquet, a US Navy captain, turned around a poor-performing nuclear submarine with its crew, taking it from “worst in fleet” to “first”. I can also recommend the audiobook, which is narrated by the author himself.

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Commander’s Intent [2] is an important model from the military which (rightly) receives attention in business circles. In this model, leaders make a habit of expressing objectives and the rationale for them, controlling the urge to specify in detail how that objective should be achieved. In short, the what and why, not the how. As explained in Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action [3], it was developed in the 19th century by Carl von Clausewitz, a general in the Prussian army, and has since become firmly established in military doctrine around the world.

Marquet turns Commender’s Intent upside down, but in so doing proves its point!

Suppose now the intent is expressed not by the leader to a subordinate, but by someone under their command and in the other direction. That person is showing initiative, might even be attempting something innovative. The commander has a choice: to trust them to get on with it, to provide support, or to suggest alternative course of action. Either way, they are mutually accountable, the one for his or her actions, the other for providing an appropriate level of support (in a context in which safety is paramount). If you can establish these leader-to-leader conversations as a new habit, then through countless such encounters and through essentially unlimited opportunities for people at every level of the organisation to show leadership, the organisation grows.

Marquet’s ultimate intention was no different to Clausewitz’s – to turn an organisation stuck in the ways of the past and barely fit for the present into one capable of thinking for itself and innovating its way into the future. Understand Commander’s Intent in those terms and Marquet’s Leader-Leader makes perfect sense.

How frequent are the opportunities for statements of intent in your organisation? Do colleagues (whether seniors, peers, or otherwise) both offer appropriate support and hold each other to account when intent has been expressed? It’s a great way for people and teams alike to grow in capability and for leadership to develop.

This post is the third in a series of three, introducing three core themes to be developed in my next book (my third, out I hope about a year from now in early summer ’19) :

  1. Right to left: the effective organisation – see Understanding Lean-Agile, right to left
  2. Outside in: the wholehearted organisation – see Towards the wholehearted organisation, outside in
  3. Upside down: the supportive organisation – this post

Working title (as of this week!): Right to left: A leader’s guide to Lean-Agile.

Meanwhile, the Agendashift book [4] is a book not about Lean-Agile but about outcome-oriented change. It is steeped in those themes, but by design it assumes them more than it explains them (though they begin to become explicit in the final chapter). If you like, Right to left is Agendashift’s prequel. Join us in the #right-to-left channel in the Agendashift Slack to monitor progress and to discuss any of these three themes.

[1] L. David Marquet, Turn the ship around!: : A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules (Portfolio Penguin, 2015)
[2] Commander’s Intent (en.wikipedia.org)
[3] Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010)
[4] Mike Burrows, Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (New Generation Publishing, 2018)


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We are champions and enablers of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation. Building from agreement on outcomes, Agendashift facilitates rapid, experiment-based emergence of process, practice, and organisation. Instead of Lean and Agile by imposition – contradictory and ultimately self-defeating – we help you keep your business vision and transformation strategy aligned with and energised by a culture of meaningful participation. More…

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