LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — Commanders intent is a doctrinal term used in planning combat missions to communicate a desired end-state to subordinates. It describes a goal, timeline, and includes an acceptable level of risk. It is purposely vague in how to reach the goal. This is so subordinates can infuse their own expertise and information into the plan and come up with something that is both effective and efficient. In combat, this way of guiding the fighting force also allows for changes in the plan due to enemy action. The commander gives board guidance that permits the flexibility to change how to get there, decided at the lowest possible level, if the fighting force runs into problems.
This same concept can be very effective with commanding and supervising in general. The Air Force today is as small and lean as it has ever been. Doing more with less has arguably never been more accurate. Old procedures have to change to compensate for decreases in manning and support. We are all expected to be experts in our own finances, orders, travel vouchers, ancillary training, and fitness. Many important areas across the base, in virtually every unit, are down to one person being the expert or the point of contact.
As commanders, leaders and supervisors, the concept of commander’s intent can be a powerful tool to help find the most efficient path to a solution, however it is not without its pitfalls. In combat, end-states may be slightly easier to define, “take control of that hill by tomorrow before sundown at all costs.” There is an objective, a timeline and what risk or priority it should be given. The challenge is that in peacetime and at Luke Air Force Base, it’s easy to have vague objectives and timelines because commanders and supervisors are not sure exactly what the objective needs to be. They’re concerned with asking too much, or do not understand what they are asking for. This is where subordinates, thinking through what they are being asked to do, need to speak up.
Subordinates, who are given a vague objective and timeline, can make or break a project by asking questions that remove unknowns. Subordinates are the experts and know the intricacies of what is being asked. If, as a subordinate, you think you know what to do, but it could take two or three different paths, ask questions that allow your supervisor to further define the task or objective and help you understand which path to take. This will save everyone both time and frustration in the end.
Just as in combat when the enemy can force you to change plans, the unknowns that pop up during any project can force a change in plans. Depending on where and when they happen, those unknowns can be handled at the lowest possible level or elevated. It all depends on if the timeline will still be met. If it can’t be handled at the lowest level, then someone must elevate the problem and get direction from leadership.
Commanders owe subordinates clear objectives and timelines, as well as a level of risk or in peacetime a sense of the priority level. Subordinates owe leaders questions that help define a project if it’s too vague. If both work together and communicate effectively, then subordinates and supervisors will have a better working relationship.