In times of uncertainty, teams tend to look up—to leaders and managers who direct their efforts—to guide their next steps. If those teams continue to feel discomfort, they often assign blame to those same leaders, thinking (and sometimes saying) that leadership should be doing more to alleviate their frustrations. 

This tendency to “look up” to find answers, a habit of good times decision-making, slows the organization to a crawl, especially in situations where there are rapid changes and a deluge of new information, like, say, a global pandemic. Further, it can frustrate leaders who can’t afford to have the organization sit idle, waiting for direction from the top. The result is a waste of energy and resources when both are in shorter supply.

COVID-19 has been the great equalizer. No matter what situations you’ve encountered, everyone has the same amount of experience (plus or minus a few months) dealing with this specific challenge. Yet, many followers are acting as if their leaders should have yet-unknowable answers.

The way our clients have overcome this challenge is by leveraging a tool called Commander’s Intent. In The Leadership Decade, we discuss the idea of Commander’s Intent, which defines objectives, guardrails, and success metrics for the team to work within to solve challenging problems. In this construct, leaders develop a clear Commander’s Intent, and followers work within that intent to achieve the desired outcomes. What makes Commander’s Intent unique is the design. Not only is it a key concept of 21st-century military operations, but the tool accounts for uncertainty. The construct enables employees at all levels to:

  • Understand what the team needs to accomplish;
  • The challenges and constraints under which they operate; and
  • The “story” of the end state once the work gets done.

Our guidance for employees during this moment would be:

  • Executive leaders – consider ways to create and communicate Commander’s Intent for your teams so they can get to correct action faster
  • Other leaders – work to understand the intent the best you can within current constraints, and drive that intent in the areas that you influence
  • For all others – ask questions and learn the intent, which can help guide your actions and decisions so that you can keep moving even when there’s imperfect information

As we all look to find answers to these novel problems, keep intent at the center of your efforts. While it might not feel like it at the moment, your willingness to take action, rather than wait for instruction, will pay off.