November 21, 2019

‘Great leaders give direction, not directions’

By: Judy Mathias
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Editor's Note

What is it that only great leaders can do? “Give direction, not directions,” writes Scott Eblin in the November 20 eblingroup.com/blog.

Leaders need to set a “commander’s intent” that gives team members a clear sense of why a task is important, what it will result in, and where the boundaries are, he says.


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Eblin gives the example of a letter former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps four-star General James Mattis wrote to his Marines before the 2003 Iraq War, which he says is a model of expressing a leader’s intent.

The three steps to doing this effectively are:

  • First, connect the task or project to the bigger picture. Leaders must define the importance of the work, and they should focus on the minds and hearts of their team members by sharing a compelling case for why their work matters.
  • Second, share the “so that,” or why they are going to do something “so that” a specific objective is accomplished. Providing the “so that” gives the team what they need to make decisions in the moment rather than checking back for directions as conditions change.
  • Third, make boundaries explicit to keep bad things from happening. Great leaders will tell their teams that to accomplish an objective they can do everything they need to do except things that betray the values and norms of the organization or exceed resources or authority.

Read General Mattis’ letter.

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