By Jim Davis, Ed.M., MA

Sandstorms are an annual expectation in Dubai. When architects set out to build the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, they had to accommodate winds approaching 30 mph with turbulence and debris powerful enough to “block out the sun”.

Standing more than 2,720 feet (nearly 830 meters) tall, the structure had to be both strong and flexible. If it was too weak, it would not be habitable, flexing and failing in the winds; if it was too rigid, it would splinter and collapse. Architects had to reach the ideal balance of strength and flexibility.

Business plans (all plans, really) must be made with similar balance. If a leader delivers instructions that are too rigid, they will eventually crack. No one can predict the exact needs of the future. If the instructions are too flexible, implementation might lack discipline and rigor. The mission must be made clear. It is a leader’s job to identify the appropriate balance of specificity and flexibility in the plan.

Concept comes first. What are you hoping to accomplish? Directions to bring that concept to life should follow, accompanied by all the skills the mission might require. Healthy, effective leadership prioritizes concept over script. It is an idea that extends beyond business.

“Healthy, effective #leadership prioritizes concept over script. It is an idea that extends beyond business.” –

Commander’s Intent

United States Marine Abby Seitz is a leadership expert. Vision and preparation are distinguishing characteristics of her style, as she focuses on connecting new Marines with their purpose as early as possible – “if not, people leave,” she says. Retaining and developing talent is a priority. Seitz connects new members to the “Fighting Spirit” of the Marines, which includes willingness and determination to protect the nation and defend its ideas.

She begins at the mindset level. It is as essential as any behavior or skill.

In a recent podcast interview, Seitz also shares that no mission will ever go exactly to plan. A mission is a guiding concept, with directions and procedures, objectives, and alignment of skills… but it is not strictly scripted. The world is too variable. Combat is unpredictable.

Before a team is dropped into a foreign environment, they will prepare as much as possible. In that new environment a team might be given direction to, hypothetically, secure a bridge. They will not know exactly what tools will be at their disposal or who/what might make its way down the road to cross. There will always be a level of uncertainty. All good. They had had rigorous training and are highly skilled. They will fulfill commander’s intent regardless of what comes there way. They will maintain focused attention, communicate well, and adapt as needed.

Commander’s Intent is a concept that spans branches of the service. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence G. Shattock defines the term:

“The commander’s intent describes the desired endstate.  It is a concise statement of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two levels below the level of the issuing commander.  It must clearly state the purpose of the mission.  It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end,” (Shattuck, 2000).

No Marine, Navy Seal, or Army Ranger would expect their commander to give them an explicit step-by-step script to accomplish a mission. What would that even look like? “Put up a barricade of cones spaced 3.5 feet apart. If a car comes, put your hand up into the air and gesture for it to stop. If you get cold, put a scarf around your neck. If a heard of cattle come by…”

When a Marine enters a situation, they will have prepared for it. They know what to do in high-stakes circumstances. They know how to protect themselves and each other. Once they understand the concept delivered through commander’s intent, they enlist wit, skill, and teamwork to make it happen. They are strong and flexible. They are ready.

“There’s no script for this!”

That’s the subject line in an email I received in Spring of 2020. “There’s no script for this!” The pandemic had reared its head and the quarantine’s duration was uncertain at best.

The message was from a successful entrepreneur, let’s call him ‘Todd’ (not his real name), who was known to tell his salespeople, “Stick to the script.” Todd was a master at routinizing his own habits and expected the same from his people. He once shared a pdf around the office for when to go to sleep, what kind of pocket organizer to buy, and recommendations for local lunch spots with the best combination of speed and healthy food.

He thought he was being helpful. He was. But he was often frustrated when people seemed unwilling to follow his explicit advice. This frustration made him pull the reins even tighter. We first started working together when he felt like his team was losing morale. Then he lost a couple key employees. He started to take it seriously.

And then the pandemic came.

Todd and I had already been talking about ‘concept over script’, making his vision clear and communicating expectations to his team without being too rigid. Painting a clear picture of where he wanted his team to go took priority over how he wanted them to get there. He began to understand that businesses that are too rigid will almost certainly fail.

Consider the music industry. Just as CD collections became commonplace, gracing the shelves of multimedia libraries across the world, the era of downloadable music appeared. Alan Watkins, in his book Coherence, reminds us that the music industry was “so focused on stopping illegal downloads that they ignored the fact that people were… actively seeking to get their music in a different way,” (Watkins, 2013, p.11). If companies had prioritized the concept of selling music over the factor-line process of printing and selling CDs, things might have worked out differently.

In March of 2020 Todd realized that, even if he wanted to, he could not write the playbook for how to tackle tasks in this new and uncertain environment. It was oddly liberating, he admits. Eventually, with similar directness and performance expectations, he switched from “stick to the script” to “I trust you, get it done.”

“Leaders, whenever possible, get clear on your vision. Find your context-specific balance of concept and script. And keep looking.” –

Everywhere, All the Time

Leaders, whenever possible, get clear on your vision. Find your context-specific balance of concept and script. And keep looking.

If your goal is to go to meet your friends for dinner, great. If the plan is to walk, but you get held up with a work call and are short on time, don’t worry. You can ride your bike, that will be faster. But what if it starts raining? No worries, you can drive. Halfway down the main road, you see that a tree has fallen and blocked traffic. No worries, you can take the side roads. One way or other, you will get there in time for cheese and crackers.

All those situational transportation adaptations pivot around a central concept: getting to the restaurant. We experience versions of this situation everywhere, all the time. We adjust without thinking – when we understand the concept.

Importantly, the more comfortable we get with this way of thinking, the less stressful those disturbances become. Those who master “concept over script”, who understand commander’s intent, tend to experience greater impact, efficiency, and speed with less stress. There is a lot of stress out there these days. Less of it would be great.

Whether you plan to erect a building, manage a business, find your way to Applebee’s or lead a company of Marines, you will want to 1) get clear on the concept. What’s your mission? 2) Identify your skillset and how you think you can bring the concept to life. What’s your strategy? and 3) be ready to adjust.

Whatever you are working on, it is not going to unfold exactly to plan. Which doesn’t mean you will fail the mission.

Concept over script. Leaders, it won’t always be easy, but it will be worth it.

References and Further Information

Shattuck, LTC L.G. (2000). Communicating Intent and Imparting Presence. March-April, Military Review.

Watkins, A. (2013). Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership. Kogan Page.

Podcast with Abby Seitz:

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