Organizational Leadership: Lessons on Leading by Intent

August 6, 2020     Kokopelli Insights


There’s a problem with the way we talk about leadership.

Conjure an image in your head: a captain standing at the helm of a ship. It may give you feelings of trust, responsibility, or certainty. The problem? That captain stands alone.

When organizations put every decision in the hands of a single leader, they often think they’re taking unpredictability out of their decision-making process. But what often gets ignored until it’s too late is the fact that, however capable your leader may be, they are still human.

If we train our team members to only depend on the person at the top of the chain, we also train them to ignore their own instincts and expertise when that person is wrong. We train people to unquestioningly execute bad strategies and, in telling them to suppress their own skills, we make them feel worthless as team members.

It’s time for a lot of us to find a new model for organizational leadership. There’s an idea out there that we love, and it comes, ironically, from a former captain of a ship.

Captain David Marquet had been training to take command of the USS Olympia, a nuclear submarine, for nearly a year when he got thrown a 7,000-ton curveball.

Because of a resignation, Marquet would take command of the USS Santa Fe instead of the Olympia. He would also have just two weeks to prepare. Two weeks for an entire nuclear submarine. It takes some of us* two weeks to decide we need to do laundry.


Does anyone know how to get a learner's permit for this?

In the first months of his first command, Marquet was leading his crew through a simple drill. According to him, he ordered “ahead two thirds,” and, obeying him, his officer on deck repeated the order.

Nothing happened. When Marquet noticed the helmsman responsible for the task looked uneasy, he asked what was wrong. The helmsman replied there was no two-thirds on the ship’s system, unlike the Olympia. The officer on deck admitted to Marquet that he repeated the command knowing full well it was incorrect.

The problem, Marquet realized, was systemic. Instead of clamping down, giving more orders, and perpetuating this system, Marquet decided that he would begin communicating intent.  

In many ways, your organization is like a nuclear submarine. Without torpedoes or—usually—a nuclear reactor. You represent a crew working towards a common mission. And, just like crew members at their stations, everyone on your team knows what they are doing. No matter how experienced a leader may be, they are no longer executing those specific individual tasks on a daily basis. 

What if, instead of taking the burden of control into their own hands, that leader showed their crew trust? What if, instead of communicating orders, they communicated their intent, and let their crew use their expertise to help accomplish that intent. 

Marquet recounts his and his crew’s whole journey in his book Turn the Ship Around! True Stories of Turning Followers into Leaders. Suffice it to say, after one year of communicating intent instead of orders, the USS Santa Fe was commended as the most improved ship in the Navy.

By giving your team members autonomy, one might be concerned that prescribed procedures won’t be followed. But is that always such a bad thing?

Multi-colored game pieces on an interconnected web

Can you pick out the leader in this photo? Or is everyone leading in their own capacities?

Consider the story of Stanislav Petrov.

In 1983, Petrov was a lieutenant-colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. His job? Monitor the country’s satellite system for signs of an incoming nuclear attack. Think about that next time you’re stressed.

His night was preceding as normal on September 26th until the early morning when the launch alarm ripped through his workstation. The computer indicated the U.S. had just launched five nuclear weapons towards Russia. Earlier that month, the U.S.S.R. had shot down a Korean Air Lines flight killing all 269 on board, including a member of U.S. Ccongress. Tensions were high. 

According to protocol, Petrov should have notified Soviet leadership immediately. But something didn’t feel right to Petrov. He was trained to expect a full-blown assault, not just five missiles. Plus, Petrov was working with a brand new computer, that he didn’t entirely trust.

Instead of following orders and putting this decision in the hands of higher-ups, Petrov did what he thought was correct: nothing. 

After more than 20 minutes had passed, he knew he had been right, it was all a computer malfunction. Trusting his gut possibly avoided an apocalyptic nuclear confrontation.

We promise that’s the last time the word “nuclear” comes up in this post. Except for that one. 

More than just results, trusting your team like this can do wonders for them personally. They feel more valued, competent, and capable on the job, and more satisfied and able to leave work behind when they get home.

As a leader, if you could improve your team’s results and help them become more fulfilled at work, you’d be satisfied right?

What if all you had to do to accomplish that was stop leading, and start trusting? 

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