Initiative ’17 – Part #4: Leader’s Intent

note: This article was originally published in May 2017, then lost in the site crash. I thought it appropriate and timely to reconstruct it for re-publication now. I took the liberty of some limited editing to improve grammar, readability, spelling, and content.

In the previous article in this series I finally defined the “mission” and was really pleased…I think it is very appropriate and applicable to you…my loyal website supporters.

First off…yes, I know I didn’t define “Prepared to Lead” until the third article and I apologize for that. It just wasn’t clear to me till that point. When it hit me I realized that a lot of people have water and food storage, some folks have plenty of guns and ammo, some people even have seeds and other more rare preparedness items and gear. But, I honestly believe that the biggest shortage after any grid-down will be leadership.

I have seen it a hundred times right after emergencies and disasters…disorganization, lack of direction, low initiative, and disbelief. All of that stems from absence of leadership. Let’s change that!

In addition to all of the other great emergency preparedness steps you are taking we are going to add one more…albeit vital…trait to the mix. And that trait will be the ability to step up and lead. That will be you!

Background –

In high-stress, high-risk environments someone has to lead. However, in today’s new-age world, the definition of “someone” can vary widely. Over 15 years ago I held a computer job on days that I was not at the fire station. I was hired to run all aspect of operations. The corporate management prided themselves on being progressive thinkers. The president of the company even had a personal “life coach.”

When I started there their productivity was very low and their profitability was dwindling. During my orientation I was briefed on their organizational structure. They shared with me that they were using what was called a “flat organizational structure.” On the white board it looked something like this…

As you can assume, I asked them about my position and role in the organization…my duties, responsibilities, and who I supervised. I was reassured that I was responsible for operations but the company ran a “flat organizational structure” and we operated as a team through mass meetings to resolve issues. Yeah…OK…right… We had a discussion for several hours regarding the structure and my role…and the changes I proposed. They finally acquiesced that it would change slightly to this…

This environment was decidedly different than my leadership role and organizational structure in the firefighting world. I lasted about a year as the COO with the company before I resigned out of frustration. The company folded about a year later for the very reasons I warned them about in my resignation letter. They failed to act on even a single point a raised. Why? They got caught up in a “new” way to manage…untested, unproven, and entirely not applicable.

The point of this example was not to gloat about my being right and the company going out of business. The point is about organization, vision, and most importantly…leadership. Without the right organization any entity is doomed to failure. And, any entity without good leadership is assured of it.

In the structure firefighting world organizational structures vary slightly from department to department. But the one thing they have in common is a clear organizational chart. Everyone knows who their boss is and who they supervise. A clear organizational structure can be seen in the military world as well.

When I started firefighting life was clear – you showed up for your shift, you were given orders, and you carried out orders. Failure to do any of the above and the best you could hope for was getting a royal chewing out. The downside was being shown the door if the infraction was severe enough. Obviously there were clear boundaries, and that actually allowed the department to operate effectively and efficiently. However, it also killed initiative and innovation. But, there was a new wind blowing.

New Way to Lead Organizations –

This “new wind” started showing up in mid-1990’s with the folks getting hired possessing more education, and those individuals thought more highly of themselves, and offered their input on everything…even when not asked for it. About that same time the fire department merged with EMS (emergency medical services). The new people wanted more say-so in what they were told to do. It was a major cultural transition challenge to say the least.

Then came another life-changing shift…in 1998 I began taking a lot of wildland fire training that was developed by the federal government. That exposed me to a new style of operations and leadership. Basically, operational responsibility was more centered on a person’s knowledge, skills, and ability vs. position title. The leadership model was also more open with far more communication up and down the chain of command. It was refreshing, albeit a bit daunting to absorb after so many years of a very rigid chain of command in the fire department and my military time.

About 2007 I had the opportunity to take upper-level leadership training with some Special Forces folks. It was an eye opener to say the least. They presented a true “team concept” with very little rigidity in the command structure when it came to operations. The group of people responsible for the mission worked together, without barriers, to formulate the plan. It was common that subject matter experts (SMEs) were used in a specific area where their expertise was most appropriate, regardless of rank. However, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a leader.

The role of the leader in this new environment was vastly different than my previous training and experience. In this new model the leader was responsible for delivering the mission parameters and making higher level decisions in the field. Other than that, the team worked together to create and execute the plan. At first I was fairly resistant to this new model. However, that soon changed once I began to see the true value in this new “team concept.”

After a couple of days I could clearly see it was obvious that this new model provided many advantages to mission success, especially at the smaller group level. As I absorbed the material I realized the success was based on two basic principles; 1) everyone in the group had “buy-in” to the plan because everyone had “input” into the plan, 2) dependence on expertise of the individual group members to resolve issues. However, I also soon realized the glue that held it all together was trust…which began with and emanated from the leader. Group/team members had to trust each other’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. But, they had to trust their leader implicitly.

Those principles of group/team dynamics is no different than what we find ourselves in here in the prepper world…especially when it comes to leadership. Without a good leader, any group/team is almost assured of failure.

So what is the key to being a good leader?

Being a Good Leader & Leader’s Intent –

There are many attributes that make up a good leader, but that subject isn’t the purpose of this article. You can read about that in my last article. < Click here to read the last article > what I want to share with you is how a good leader handles planning with his team. There are two principles of success for a good leader when it comes to planning; 1) ability to communicate clearly within the group, 2) the ability of the group to envision the “leader’s intent.”

“Leaders intent” is an in-depth subject in its own right. Many articles and research papers have been written about it and many courses for corporate and military leaders exist to train in it. It is not my intention to pontificate in great scholarly detail, it would bore you to death. However, it is absolutely necessary to understand the basic concept of leader’s intent in order to successfully plan in an effective group/team setting. It is even more critical in the execution of a mission in the prepper world.

It is pretty widely accepted across the scholarly spectrum that leader’s intent consists of –

  1. Task:  What it is to be accomplished.
  2. Purpose:  Why it is to be done.
  3. End State:  What it should look like when done.

However, I find that to be far too much content when conveying leader’s intent. I believe is should simply be defined as, “What success looks like when we are done…and why.”

My definition looks more like the last item on the list. But, I have been in far too many briefings where the “task” over shadows everything else. And, when that over-briefing rears its ugly head, then the group bogs down in tactics and loses track of the big picture.

I have given hundreds, probably thousands of briefings in my career and I think I have learned what works and what doesn’t work. I base my judgements on the success or failure of the mission itself. I found that the more I got into the details in the planning phase as the leader the higher the likelihood of failure. When I was clear on what I wanted success to look like, touched on strategy, and then stayed out of the tactics, the probability of success increased significantly.

Now, in my defense, it is not that I suck at tactics in the field, quite the contrary (IMHO). It’s when I moved into upper management and leadership positions that I had a hard time letting go of operations. The key to letting go was knowing my subordinates knowledge, skills, and ability…and letting them do their jobs. All they needed from me was a clear statement of my intent, an overview of strategy, and then turn them loose. However, I always made it clear what success would look like when we were done.

Going through this transition of “old school” leadership and planning to the more “team-oriented” model I also realized the while leader’s intent applied at every level of operational leadership. However, it applied even more so at an organization’s higher leadership levels. What I mean by that is fairly straight forward…with the increase of knowledge, skills, and abilities of personnel, there was less direct hands-on leadership required.

It is not that much different in a family setting. A parent has to give a lot of direction to a 5-year old, including what clothes to wear. To a 17-year old a parent might only have to deliver the “intent” of being home by 10pm…“or else.”

My version of “what does success look like when we’re done” doesn’t exclude “purpose.” I just find it secondary to the end-state vision. But, purpose is also critical to the team’s planning to ensure “buy in.” If your team doesn’t understand what the purpose of what they are doing, then don’t count on much team enthusiasm.

Examples of Leaders Intent –

Going back to the family analogy you say to your teenage daughter, “Be home by 10pm Kim.” That gives her your intent as the parent (i.e. leader). Your daughter Kim now clearly understands what you expect (i.e. what success looks like). But now the follow-up with the purpose, “I want you to be safe.” Now your daughter understands that you care about her safety, you love her, and want to ensure her safety. This is best accomplished by her being home by 10pm. If she trusts you, and you her, there should be little, if any, conflict over the successful outcome.

OK, maybe with one exception…she is 17 years old…teenagers know everything! But, you get my point about intent and purpose.

Maybe a more realistic example would be this…you are standing in front of a pile of sand, there are 100 sand bags and 6 shovels up against the tree, it is raining, and you have 15 people standing around. You are the leader and it goes like this:

“Thank you guys for coming out, I really appreciate it. We have to fill these 100 sandbags and get them in place by noon. If we can do that we can keep the church building from flooding.”

Did the statement clearly answer the following?

  • What is to be accomplished?
  • Why it is to be done?
  • What does success look like?

If it was easy to answer those question, then the leader delivered “leader’s intent” successfully. Which then makes it easier to accomplish the task

In my role on Incident Management Teams over the years I have been responsible for saving homes from burning down in the path of large wildfires. I have been very fortunate and I haven’t lost a single house that I have been responsible for. Let’s use that as a study in proper leader’s intent.

  1. If my responsibility is to prevent houses from burning down, and;
  2. I am about to provide direction to the firefighting resources assigned to me…

…would this be appropriate leader’s intent to a group of fire engines, “Go to Happy Hills subdivision and don’t let any houses burn down.”

What would be in the firefighters’ minds? Yup, probably…I better do everything I can to not let a house burn down or my butt is in big trouble!

Do you agree with that?

What would be better wording to deliver my leader’s intent? Maybe something like this…

“At the end of the day I want you guys to be safe and I need you to do everything reasonable to save as many homes from burning down as possible.”

At this point do you think the firefighters have a slightly clearer picture of what their responsibility is? How about how they interpret my vision of safety? Is the vision of their task clear enough for all of the firefighters? How about their engine captains?

So here is what goes on in my mind –

  1. Their Captains are in charge of each of the fire engines, they have already proven to be competent or they wouldn’t hold that position. Therefore, I trust those leaders to do their job.
  2. I value their safety over the value of saving houses.
  3. When I said “…do everything reasonable…” gave them the authorization to do what he needed to as long as it was within industry norms (i.e. reasonable).

So here is what should be going on in their minds –

  1. They have a specific responsibility, keep houses from burning down.
  2. They have authorization to do so within reason.
  3. They also know not to take unnecessary risks because people are valued more than the homes.

That is in a perfect world. And we all know that we seldom work in a perfect world. However, there are options for dealing with that. It is called “Q&A”…for both sides’ benefit. Both the firefighters and I have the ability, and responsibility, to ask questions to ensure that the assignment is clear and understood.

After stating my leader’s intent I can ask a simple question such as, “Do you have any questions, thoughts, concerns, issues, or suggestions about the assignment I have given you?”

Or, a firefighter can ask, “Can you define reasonable a little better for me?”

By the time we are done with the complete back-and-forth exchange they know what is expected, what the authorization parameters are, and that I will support them in their decisions if they stays within those parameters.

That paints a pretty good picture of success if you ask me. So what are the two key elements in this successful delivery of leader’s intent?

For me I would say; 1) good communications, 2) trust.

So far we now understand that leader’s intent is a leader conveying to their subordinates what he wants done. He also does it with a clearly defined picture of what success looks like. Because the leader trusts his subordinates, those folks can now plan their individual actions to accomplish the picture of success.

Why vs. What = Motivation –

There is one more integral part to completing the delivery of leader’s intent, “why” it needs to be successful. Without the “why” the subordinates are only being told what to do, not why it is so important. So you could say, the motivation is lacking. Anyone who has suffered in an organization where motivation is absent can attest to the likelihood of success in some new project.

But, motivation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Motivation will only exist where values are shared.

Trust –

Without trust, motivation is usually very superficial and mostly ineffective. Conversely when there is significant or complete trust between leadership and subordinates, motivation is a given.

Tying “trust” back to leader’s intent is rather simple, but absolutely imperative. For a leader to develop and deliver an appropriate and clear leader’s intent statement, he must know and trust his subordinates. He must be realistic and trust them that they can carry out what he is asking them to do. From the subordinate’s perspective, they must trust their leader that what he is asking them to do is realistic. Yes, it may contain risk, but risk is something that can be mitigated.

Hands-Off Leadership (No Micro-Managing!) –

Once the leader’s intent has been delivered, understood, and agreed upon, it is best for the leader to back away from the team. Let the team develop the plan of action. He must trust their knowledge skills and abilities to do the planning to make it all happen.


Remember the SMART system for setting objectives? The same outline can be used with leader’s intent. After all, isn’t leader simply a top-level objective? < Click here to read more about SMART >

Leader’s intent follows suit, it must be; specific, measurable, action oriented, realistic, and time-sensitive. Using that format let’s look at a bad example of leader’s intent –

“Go plant a garden so we can eat.”

Now let’s analyze why it is bad. Is it –?

  1. Specific?
  2. Measurable?
  3. Action oriented?
  4. Realistic?
  5. Time-sensitive?

Let’s try again this time using another example of leader’s intent but reformulated to meet the SMART criteria.

“We don’t have enough food for a full year. We need to grow 50% of the food we eat. We need to be eating 1/4 our food out of a garden within the next three months, 50% within 6 months. If we can do that we will not starve.”

Now let’s analyze it. Is it –?

  1. Specific?
  2. Measurable?
  3. Action oriented?
  4. Realistic?
  5. Time-sensitive?

Can you clearly notice the difference between the two leader’s intent statements?

Summary –

Wow, when talking about leader’s intent I could go on forever…but you are probably already bored. Another word or two won’t hurt you…so read on!

You are already a good prepper or you wouldn’t be visiting this website. You already understand the need for leadership during emergencies, disasters, or grid-down events or you wouldn’t be reading this article. What I am asking of you now…prepare to be a leader…a good leader.

I have noticed over the years that when there is a vacuum of leadership nature takes over, someone will become the leader. What worries me is who will step up. A couple of years ago I did some serious research on post-disaster personalities. As a result I wrote a 4-part series of personalities that will attempt to be leaders. As you might guess, there will be some very sketchy folks who will attempt to become leaders…or dictators…or wolves. Don’t let that happen!! (click here to read that series of articles)

You have the ability to become a great leader. You have already taken steps to do so. You have it inside of you the ability to be the leader people need. You already have vision! You know what is coming, you are preparing for it. That makes you a step or two ahead of 99% of the population wherever you might live.

To be that leader you must take vision and turn it into a mission statement…leader’s intent. Make it easy for others to see what you see…success. Give them a reason to move forward, to be successful, and to work together.

Let your folks know:

  1. Task:  What it is to be accomplished.
  2. Purpose:  Why it is to be done.
  3. End State:  What it should look like when done.

I have every confidence in you.


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