# 6: Post-Corona Leadership, Commander’s Intent, and no “Damn Chicken Salad”

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath (2008): Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, 29.

The Story behind the Passage

I am thinking a lot about leadership these days. Well, I have always been thinking a lot about leadership because, as I have come to understand, everything in life is about leadership in one way or the other.

Good leaders make good things happen. Bad leaders make bad things happen or nothing at all. No leadership makes even more of nothing happen or good things by accident. And self-leadership is important but not the solution to every leadership problem.

Hey, that is pretty much all the wisdom I can share in anything I ever write here! ;o) But I have many more days to go. That is not a good excuse…

Especially the current Covid-19 experience turns leadership into a discussion topic in various different spheres, including business but also politics and civic society at large. That also includes the discussion on the lasting lack of women leaders. It was a total coincidence (if you believe in that concept) that I wrote about women yesterday. Only a few hours later I learned that a new study had come out that, in sum, has one message: Germany still sucks when it comes to the promotion of women leaders at the very top and below. In case you missed it, below is the link to the study by the Albright Fund entitled “Deutscher Sonderweg” (Germany’s Special Path) — in German. (I know it might not be smart to guide you to another text at this point before I have not even started my own story for today but it is o.k. if you check out the link now and get lost as long as you learn something… I am not a blogger pro yet, I am just a writer, that is it… There you go: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c7e8528f4755a0bedc3f8f1/t/5f7cb22f2f46821aa896e185/1602007640517/AllBrightBericht_Herbst+2020.pdf

Today’s passage is from Made to Stick. It is a great book to read if you want to learn how storytelling works in theory and practice. I did not pick it right away this morning. Rather, I went from the impulse of talking about leadership today to wondering which story might best serve as an entry point to the topic today. And this is how the passage above came to my mind. It is one that I found quite striking when I came across it several months ago. And that is not because I like chicken (not the meat, the animals…). It is because this summer I started thinking a lot about the issue of simplicity. I know, I seem to be thinking a lot, I am just realizing that as I am typing that word. It is the burden of writers, I guess. Good thing we do not share all the thoughts in public!

As to the issue of simplicity, I was made aware of it by people who have been consulting for many decades and who are really far-sighted when it comes to solving the most pressing problems of society. And simplicity is definitely one of the keywords in this context. I will write more about this sometime. The reason why I am mentioning it is because the passage above appears in the chapter “Simple.” And I can warn you: Whenever you start thinking about this consciously, it will drive you nuts because is nothing is harder than thinking and talking simply, especially if your brain has been taught to do the opposite (complexity-driven) all the time. But again, I will say more about this in a different story, it deserves more room and I want to be fairly brief today.

My Learnings

“Commander’s Intent” This might remind you of the military and, as the authors explain before providing this example, this is exactly where the concept comes from. Commander’s intent means exactly what the words suggest: As a commander, you naturally have some intent, i.e., the goal of some operation, e.g., win a battle, conquer land, or free soldiers… (Well, I know, this is all not very pacifist-friendly here, but it is where the concept originated and the military context provides you with very simple images in your mind to help you understand what I am trying to get at).

Obviously, the goal of such an operation — be it in the military or elsewhere— is what is meant by intent. The problem in practice is that people very often tend to communicate not the intent but the plan in their mind to realize the intent. This is where the authors quote Colonel Tom Kolditz: “No plan survives contact with the enemy” (25). Just replace “enemy” with “real life” and you will know exactly what they are talking about. I recently saw a post by a friend on Facebook which I actually saved somewhere on my computer because it touched me so much. It touches the same issue:

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”

(Thank you, Roland!)

The simple truth behind this is that plans hardly ever work out the way we want them to work out. And this is where the power of the Commander’s Intent unfolds. By only clearly stating the intent, the commander achieves one thing that startups call “Mission Clarity.” As one of the soldiers/employees on the team, the Commander’s Intent tells you exactly where you need to go. But it gives you the necessary flexibility to figure out how to get there. That does not mean that there is no plan at all. Most likely, there is. But there is a tremendous difference in terms of communication. If you are only informed about the plan, not the intent, you will screw up as soon as the plan cannot be pursued anymore.

Think about this now in the context of hiking, for example. If you have a detailed map but all of a sudden the trail ends or a river is flooded and you cannot continue walking on the chosen trail — you will have to stop and think really hard how to figure out the next steps. If you do manage to find an alternative route, most of the original plan will be worth nothing, unless you can somehow get back to the original trail after overcoming the obstacle. What is most helpful to keep you going is a clear image of the destination, which can be as simple as a mountain top or some landscape which you can see from any point while walking, no matter if you take detours in-between. In the worst case, however, you will not be able to move on at all if the map was all you had as the only possible way to go and no other point of orientation.

Of course, this metaphor of walking a trail or climbing a mountain is one that storytellers frequently use to explain situations like reaching goals, moving on… And that is not because storytellers suffer from lack of imagination. It is simply that trails and mountains are known to everyone in the world, no matter which cultural background you have or which language you speak. Now, what does all this have to do with post-Corona leadership and chicken?

“Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.” In the example of Southwest Airlines, the Commander’s Intent is the vision of becoming “THE low-fare airline.” I know, some of you might get very grumpy now because you have suffered from this vision as an airline customer over and over again. Southwest is by far not the only airline to pursue that vision. First, the airlines dropped the free food. Then they started selling lottery tickets which they frequently announce at a speaker volume which leaves no option for napping. And then they continued to squeeze so many seats into one plane that you wonder if they will start introducing “seat-sharing” as an alternative to desk-sharing to sell twice as many tickets for one flight (actually, now that I am having this idea, I think it might even be a creative way of rescuing the airlines from Corona-caused bankruptcy?! Just saying…).

What the CEO underlines here in the passage is that the knowledge of the overarching goal allows you to derive decisions without constantly facing the burden of “insecurity” and “risk.” For sure, every decision involves taking risks (practically all research in the social sciences deals with this in one way or the other). But on the level of organizations, much of the insecurity and INACTION derives from insecurities that could easily be avoided if the Commander’s Intent had been communicated clearly. Again, nobody is forced to personally like or agree with this overarching goal or vision. But the point is, it facilitates decision making because no sophisticated maths or a PhD are needed to make a decision. Or do you think that some “damn chicken salad” really does not cost more than serving peanuts? (If yes, please consult your kids on this or stop by at the next kindergarten to have them explain it to you by drawing a picture maybe or singing the A, B, C song…).

The reason why I am linking this topic with “post-Corona” leadership is because the issue of decision-making based on individual thinking is becoming more important than ever before. I have to emphasize that I am aware that the “post” prefix is a no brainer here because we might never live in a world where the virus has been erased completely. Still, the present situation surely marks a turning point in history and global crises like these always function as fissures that mark the ending of one historical narrative and trigger a new one of some sort. This also holds true for the work world which has long been dealing with buzzwords like “New Work, Digitalization, Virtual Leadership…” The difference now is that the “transition” phase has abruptly ended, there is a new reality and no point of return.

This also causes more and more employees and leaders to ask: What will it be like when we return to the “new normal,” with this mostly meaning the “office”? I am not going to talk about the balancing of on- and off-line work now. What I want to focus on is the general fact that more digital leadership will be happening and that also means that more self-leadership will be required from each and every individual. And this is exactly why the Commander’s Intent is so valuable to remember for leaders and employees alike: This old way of telling someone when to do what in which way is not possible anymore (neither has it been efficient or effective in the past, as we are also learning with every study that comes out on this). Decisions therefore can only be made — at least in the best case scenario — if everyone knows about the big picture and can thus easily infer which move is smarter at a given point. As with any decision making, you have to remember that there will never be the universally “right” decision. Decisions are always bound to the information you have in the present and your evaluation of this status quo.

Still, this is abstract. How do you DO it? How do you make sure that everybody knows about the Commander’s Intent? Easy answer: Talk, talk, talk… (leaders). Ask, ask, ask…. (employees). And this applies to any kind of company or institution, including startups, corporates, small companies. Just because everybody around you seems to think that everybody else seems to know what the hell you are doing because you have these beautiful pictures with mountains, winding roads, and rockets on the walls and a marketing-tuned mission statement on the website — that does not mean much. But I know that not many of you will actually “stick” to what I am saying here. Why?

“…she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular.” I am going to be done with this last section very quickly. Being popular based on selling popular ideas to popular people is a human flaw. There is not much to be done about it, only self awareness brings some improvement. We want to be loved because we need love — true. But in business — and I still think this is a huge problem, especially for people who come from working-class and/or some “minority” background and find themselves in leadership positions— this is a major issue that we need to address by means of cultural change and open communication in organizations.

We need to learn early on that our value as wonderful individuals has nothing to do with the job we have or the decisions we make. Yes, we can and should be passionate about all this but we should not necessarily identify with what we do in our professional roles. Leaders and organizational members alike need to learn techniques as to how to communicate in a way that the person and the issue are separated — in cases of praise and criticism. Communication tools and respective personal development and coaching programs, in my opinion, are the most needed tools at this very moment to manage the transition to the “New Work” world.

I am emphasizing this because it is one of the things that really touch me, no matter how professional I am (becoming). Communication is THE ONLY means of interaction between any living being on this planet. This reminds me of a quote I learned in on of my first lecture courses in university at the Communications Department:

“You cannot not communicate.” (Paul Watzlawick)

Communication is the abstract concept that practically implies any of our utterances. It is the most complicated thing to study, practice, teach. And I am completely convinced that at least 80% (if not all) of our work-related tragedies (losing one’s job, depression, mobbing…) could be prevented by teaching people how to communicate differently in the work environment. And differently mostly means with more empathy. Only when you are able to see the world from the perspective of someone else, you can choose your words more wisely. This does not mean that you go by “popularity,” as explained above. What I mean is careful but authentic communication that at least aims at mutual understanding. And, after all, personal stories are a great way of getting a message across. “Made to Stick.”

Reflection Questions

1) Are you perfectly clear about your Commander’s Intent/the one of your founder(s)/CEO?

2) What can you personally do to improve the communication in your company?

3) In which situations are you tempted to act in a way that solutions might be ‘popular’ but not strictly in line with the overall mission or your organization? How can you change this?