In his book Call Sign Chaos, Jim Mattis makes this argument: “Success on the battlefield, where opportunities and dangers open and close in a few compact and intense minutes, comes from aggressive junior officers with a strong bias for action (my italics).” He continues, “To instill that trust…as young officers, we learn how to convey our intent so that it passes intact through the layers of intermediate leadership to our youngest Marines.”
Mattis’ words provide a challenge to CEOs and other C-suite leaders (including to me, as CEO of The Bailey Group). Specifically, have we been effective at communicating strategic intent?
How do Marine Corps officers communicate intent? Quoting Mattis, “The critical information is your intent, summed up in the phrase “in order to.” Mattis gives an example of a well stated intent: “We will attack that bridge in order to cut off the enemy’s escape.” Thus, if a platoon seizes the bridge and cuts off the enemy, the mission is a success. But if the bridge is captured and the enemy is escaping, the platoon commander, without further orders, will move to cut off the enemy’s escape based on a shared understanding of the “why” of the mission.
I began thinking about how this applies to strategy at The Bailey Group. One of our strategic objectives is to install a Sales Operating System. Using Mattis’ model, communicating intent would sound like: “We will install a sales operating system in order to create new sales opportunities and more predictable quarterly sales results.” With this clear intent, consultants are free to create their own plans for achieving the desired results.
Viscount Slim was a British field commander in World War II. In his book Defeat into Victory, Slim wrote, “Commanders at all levels had to act more on their own; they were given greater latitude to work out their own plans to achieve what they knew was the Army Commander’s intention. In time, they developed a marked degree of flexibility of mind and firmness of decision that enabled them to act swiftly to take advantage of sudden information or changing circumstances without reference to their superiors…This acting without orders…or without waiting for approval, yet always within the overall intention, must become second nature…”
Executive leadership is faced with the challenge of maximizing the contribution of leaders at all levels, particularly leaders one level below executive leadership. A common complaint is that this level of leadership is risk averse, lacking in innovative thinking, and tends to wait for direction rather than taking initiative. Mattis places responsibility for “unleashing audacity” on executive leadership. In his words, “If [you] expect subordinates to seize fleeting opportunities under stress, [your] organization must reward this behavior in all facets of training, promoting and commending.” In other words, your followers respond to the behaviors you model and reward. To get more initiative and innovation from followers, you must change how you lead.
If creating initiative and audacity in high potential leaders is one of your strategic objectives, send me an email and let’s have coffee to discuss how Marine Corps leadership principles might apply in your organization. It could be fun, and we would both learn something for sure!