On Information-Sharing, Teamwork, and Trust, “Commander’s Intent” and Communications Flows: It Ain’t Just a One-Way Street

Jack H. (Nick) McCall*
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

Overheard in a law office hallway one day: a discussion between Jeff and Jo about their boss, John:

Jeff: “John is a great guy and a good boss. Have you noticed, though, that he sometimes tends to be reserved—maybe, guarded—about holding back info when he gives us projects or tells us about the office’s latest needs and expectations? Sometime, maybe, when you might really need to know a few more details, but you don’t find them out until later?”

Jo: “Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too. It can be kind of tough, can’t it, to figure out what he really wants sometimes.”

Jeff: “Oh, yes! Maybe if he was a little less guarded and gave us more context, we might be able to help him better, or better analyze not just the black-letter law but also what’s really going on behind-the-scenes with the office or a client, and what it actually needs, and not what we guess it needs. You know?”

Jo: “I’ve felt the same thing sometimes…. Do you think he doesn’t trust us?”

As I pondered the above dialogue—a dialogue which is likely fairly common among a leader’s subordinates, not only in law firms and law departments but across much of corporate America—it struck me that the implications go much deeper than just getting work done efficiently. The last part asked by Jo—“do you think he doesn’t trust us?”—certainly can lead to more challenging and troublesome aspects of interoffice human relations. It may be very well true for many of us lawyers that we share an ingrained need-to-know-basis-only outlook in how we parse out facts and information, even to our junior lawyers, office staff and team members. After all, isn’t knowledge power, and aren’t we governed by the need to safeguard attorney-client privileged communications other than in those exceptional and fairly limited circumstances set out by the Rules of Professional Conduct?

But, that wariness (if not stinginess) in sharing appropriate information and facts can certainly lead our team members, at best, to feel less well equipped, informationally speaking, in pursuing projects and tasks that we expect them to undertake; to feel left out; and, in the worse cases, as Jo hinted, to worries of being distrusted by lawyer-leaders or of feeling that senior-subordinate interactions are hardly models of professional openness and transparency. There has to be a better way.

Let me suggest a tool that might help reframe the issue, albeit one from the military experience.

For decades, standard training for Army officers included curriculum on writing and issuing orders, as a key role of officers and unit commanders. The need to transmit clear, readily understandable and specific (yet flexible), mission-crafted orders is paramount to all military operations, whether peacetime field exercises and road convoys or wartime deployments and battle movements. A major portion of the creation of suitable orders for a leader to direct his or her troops focuses on the concept of “commander’s intent.” What does that mean?

To quote a recent blog entry from a U.S. Army officer who often writes about leadership issues, “The Angry Staff Officer,” the basic idea of “commander’s intent” can be thought of like this: “We truly cannot plan for all contingencies, nor can we train for them all…. Human nature itself is fickle, and can play a major role in how [situations] develop. Therefore, the commander must clearly state her or his intent for the operation, no matter what may happen to the plan upon execution.”

To break this down further: It is not enough for a leader to simply give a fixed and highly specific list of tasks. For projects with any degree of nuance or complexity, the leader needs to give his or her subordinates a clear orientation of what he or she is thinking, what the ultimate objective is, and broad guidance on how to achieve that goal broadly if the facts on the ground change. (As Patton allegedly said: “No plan, however good, ever survives first contact with the enemy.”) So, in issuing orders, a good leader specifies his or her overarching intent to one’s subordinates and what the desired end goal is supposed to be, in case adaptation and “audibles” become necessary.

The Angry Staff Officer adds: “Commanders absolutely cannot shirk their duty when it comes to providing clear and direct intent with a precise end-state. [Leaders] must provide their vision for the operation’s overall intent and where subordinates should direct their energy. It should not tell subordinates how to execute, but merely what their goals need to be. This way, subordinate commanders or leaders can…take advantage of opportunities as they appear or make changes to the plan on the fly rather than waiting for new orders. Clear commander’s intent enables disciplined initiative…. It is the difference between a battle won and a battle lost. It empowers subordinates to lead and make decisions. It is the single most important part of a mission order and should be treated as such.”

In a non-military, law firm or business life, what can we translate from the musings of a thoughtful but sometimes dyspeptic army staff officer? Simply spoken: the idea of “commander’s intent” is the “vision thing.” It is the “empowerment” thing. It embodies a sense of clear communications and conveyance of expectations, broadly but crisply stated.

It also—a wonderful secondary benefit—provides the sense of letting juniors know that they are trusted and relied upon to use appropriate initiative to get things done. It bolsters a sense of teamwork. And, it demonstrates that effective communications between “the leaders and the led” are absolutely more than a one-way street, a bottom-up communications channel where juniors must always keep their seniors informed, but maybe less so in the reverse, top-down, mode.

In an optimized organization—whether a formal, hierarchical structure or a more informal “team of equals” approach—this kind of good communications breeds loyalty and stimulates more trust and confidence. And those things, I submit, are also a two-way street.

*The opinions and viewpoints contained in the article are those of the author and are not to be imputed to his employer or the U.S. government.

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