How to Lead Without Being There

Growth-oriented leaders make their intent clear and then let the team on the ground make the decisions. Here’s how that can work at your company.


    At some point, every entrepreneur faces a moment of truth: Your company can’t grow if you insist on being present at every important encounter and the “decider” on every decision. Until members of your team can seize opportunities on their own, you will be a drag on your own growth.

            In the army we give field commanders freedom to make quick decisions on the ground by making sure they understand the commander’s intent.   The intent is not the same as the plan, since the assumptions underlying any battle plan—like the assumptions underlying any business plan—tend to be quickly undermined by reality. We want our people fighting the battle, not the plan. So do you.

Intent statements differ from vision statements because they guide behavior in more practical ways. They consist of four parts:

1. Purpose

A common purpose aligns great organizations.  Yet it is easy to find business plans—from large-scale enterprises to book proposals—that never articulate the purpose of the endeavor. Kick off your intent statement with a crisp, concise, simple explanation of yoursA great example, from Dr. Christophe Fournier of Doctors Without Borders: ”Our purpose is to limit the devastations of war.”.

2. Methods

Now give people ways they should feel free to pursue that purpose, and ways they should not.

Shout to all involved “This is what we DO.” Consider this public method statement from Parish Brewing Company in Broussard, Louisiana: “We supply Louisiana with uncompromising, craft-brewed beer (or biere in our native cajun french). Using only the finest ingredients, we’d never cut costs at the expense of flavor.”  If you operated that brewery, you could develop techniques knowing that you aren’t interested in mass production, that your product should have local appeal, that interstate distribution does not have a high priority, and that quality, not price, will determine your selection of water, grain, yeast, and hops.  No need for the boss to look over your shoulder.  You would be empowered.

3. End State

Leaders motivate people in the pursuit of goals.  Setting an end state will help you and your people measure success.  Consider this statement from hybrid auto-maker Lincvolt, “We will know we have succeeded  when one or more major companies building automobiles use our technology or something similar, creating 0 emissions, while saving money for the owner.”

4. Risk

You’ve probably asked yourself, “Do I ask permission, or move ahead and beg forgiveness later if things go bad?”  The question arises when leaders fail to express how much risk they’re willing to underwrite.  People will eagerly assume risks with other people’s money if you don’t set limits. The mortgage bubble, for example, had everything to do with the poor articulation of acceptable risk.

Spend 15 minutes right now putting bullet comments under the headings of Purpose, Methods, End State, and Risk. Then, spread your intent statement around. Put it on a single page atop every business plan or proposal you craft.  Give it to everyone—except your competitors!  It will make a huge difference in how nimble, adaptable, and powerful your organization can be.

The views expressed by this author are his alone and not necessarily shared by the Department of Defense, the Army, or West Point.