Leadersip by command or intent?

I was at the Regents College (European Business School) earlier this year at a Business forum I am a member of. That evening’s speaker was Duncan Christie Miller and his theme was “The History and Reality of Modern Day Leadership”.  Being a military man, he used a number of military examples, showing how different styles can affect outcomes.

I’ll simplify his talk. First he showed a clip of a film where the general was on the high ground and the troops all lined up in the centre, with cavalry on the wings. All good stuff. The general gave “commands” and won the battle.

However, a later example had the same scenario but guns and cannons had been invented and very soon, the smoke obscured the battle field and the general was unable to give effective directions. The “line of command” approach had broken down. . . . and yes, he lost.

The Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz came up with an answer. Rather than the general giving direct commands which MUST be obeyed, the general gives his “intent” to his commanders, and they had to make decisions on the ground, based on their own judgement, concerning what to do to ensure the general’s intent was achieved. It worked rather well. In fact a commander could be disciplined for “blindly obeying” an order. This was totally unknown in the British army at the time, where “command”  was so strong, that people knowingly did stupid things, when ordered – do you remember the charge of the light brigade? Duncan said perhaps this “command” approach is still too strong,  as witnessed by a British warship standing by doing nothing while Somali pirates recently took over a merchant ship under their noses while they waited for instructions from London.

The shift from line of command to line of intent in the Prussian army happened in order to react to a different and more complex (and smoky) environment. The old way of fighting was dead and the new ways required a different approach.

Duncan concluded by asking the attendees how relevant this story is in the modern, complex business world, where, like a general, the CEO or VP up a chain of command cannot see it all and know it all. He said, there is still a place for “commands” but perhaps, “intent” is more powerful for much of what we do.

Here is an example from my early civil engineering days. In 1979, I was in Yemen, on a team of five, supervising a harbour construction (at today’s costs about £100m). We had no phones and no internet. There were two telex machines in the local post office with limited access, some 2 miles from the site.  Most communication was via the weeklyAir France flight which took the post – turn-round time alomost 3 weeks. The “intent” was communicated to us by means of the drawings and specifications and we had to make week by week and day by day decisions, based on what happened on the ground. It worked. We made a lot of decisions with no reference to “head office” and the harbour complex was completed on time and underbudget. Yasar Arrafat opend it!   I rather think that in these more modern days of instant 24/7 communications, we  would never be allowed that freedom. In fact cofusion would have increased as head office could have “interfered” from a distance with no direct view of what was actually happening on the ground. Insttead the focussed on the really big issues, uncluttered by th minutiae of day to day construction.

So in that situation, line of intent was probably more effective than direct commands. Only “big” commands were needed and these were never urgent.

What’s your view on this? have you anyreal-life  stories and experience to share on the pros and cons of the two approaches? Join in the discussion.