Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.
--James MacGregor Burns, Leadership
Leader's Intent came to the incident management community from the military. It's a great concept, built around the idea that under the pressures of a complex and dynamic environment, centralized command and control will break down. When that happens, everyone needs to know the expectations and strategy of the incident so they can continue to work with the big picture in mind. A shared intent empowers everyone to work towards the common goals.
When used and articulated correctly, it is one of the best ways to manage responders and it also helps to manage stress as people will know what is expected of them. It would be much more stressful if you had to wait for someone to approve your actions in the middle of a rapidly escalating incident.
Still, I always feel a bit queasy when I hear someone deliver their Leader's Intent in a meeting or briefing.
The idea of Leader and Leadership is a deeply personal one that is shaped by our experiences, our emotions, the leaders we emulate, the mentors we learned from, and even the popular and political culture of our times. If we drilled down into everyone's definition of Leader, we might be in the same ballpark, but none of us would quite be in the same place--whereas if we were defining, say, elk, we'd probably all be standing on the same base. Does the person up there with the mic giving me their Leader's Intent meet my idea of a Leader? If they don't, does that affect how I hear and process the intent? I don't see how it cannot.
Every time you have to speak, you are auditioning for leadership. --James Humes
Leader is a designation that is given, not a title that is appropriated. It certainly does not convey with a position. It is what you do, not who you are. Leader is like intelligent in that if someone says they are smart, we immediately assume they aren't, yet by relying on the phrase Leader's Intent, we force the speaker into that same awkward place. The best leaders I know would never claim to be a Leader. Instead, they are constantly working towards the idea of a Leader, recognizing it is up to others to decide if they attain it. Leadership is also ephemeral: it has to validated at every moment and can be lost in a split second.
Earn your leadership every day. --Michael Jordan
I could perhaps buy off on Leader's Intent if it were confined to incident responder and military commander types, as they have a history of both doing and directing, but even there it would be sketchy. However, we see it creeping into the larger organizations where the meaning of intent is consumed by supervisory goals and leader is conflated with manager. Of course, if you adhere to the Leader's Intent idea and truly empower people, that also means you trust them to make decisions, which is a tough thing for some people and organizations to allow. Too many are claiming--and diminishing--the language of leadership in service to their own pedestrian and bureaucratic aims.
We need to find a way to preserve the grander idea of Leader's Intent without contracting the meaning of leader. It seems simple to me in that we just quit using the phrase Leader's Intent. We could say:
My intent as Incident Commander...
My intent as Agency Administrator...
My intent as your supervisor...
If we phrase it this way, it is more honest as we leave it up to the listener to decide if the speaker is a leader or not while the intent--be it offered by leader or manager--is still clear and understood without having to deal with the issues a word like Leader can carry.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.