Here’s the straight dirt: comms wins wars. It dispatches orders, masses fires, updates intel, stops fratricide, coordinates evolving mission sets, and maintains command and control.
Lesson finished, right? Except for one last fact: the enemy knows that comms wins wars. Which is why any near-peer adversary will hunt with violence for our satellite communication systems, tactical datalinks, wireless intercoms, vehicular transceivers, handheld devices, digital terminals, and GPS transponders. And you can bet that despite our most creative countermeasures, the enemy will be effective. Radios will jam. Routers will go haywire. Satellites will fall out of the sky.
Really, then, comms wins wars, but only if allowed to function unimpeded. In a war characterized by contested communications environments, victory will go to the force that adapts best when comms gets hit, punching ugly holes in networks, fragmenting information capacity, and necessitating tighter, intermittent, asynchronous bursts. So, how can we be that winning force? How can we compensate for discontinuous comms and maintain the communication needed for success? By leveraging the decentralized intelligence of individual units to coordinate in blackout via shared understanding of the greater mission. Or, more simply, commander’s intent.
This should be no problem, because commander’s intent is US Army doctrine. But this will in fact be a very big problem because the Army has long struggled to convert this doctrine into practice. We’re good at defining what commander’s intent is—but not so good at explaining how to execute it.
Happily, however, we can improve. We arrived at specific conclusions about how we can improve recently when we combined our experience—one of us is a signal officer with a decade in special operations forces (SOF), while the other is an expert in narrative cognition, the science of how the brain creates plans and communicates them—embedded in high-performing teams across SOF, and studied how they developed and executed commander’s intent. In doing so, we surfaced their tacit knowledge—that is, the root behaviors that drove success but lurked in the subconscious, where soldiers themselves could not perceive or articulate it. We then rendered that tacit knowledge into explicit processes and instructions by translating it into brain-training exercises for underperforming teams. We did not seek to turn tacit knowledge into PowerPoint slides, acronyms, and definitions. Instead, we did what SOF cadre do when they build obstacle courses and shoot houses: develop a practice-based method for instilling better behaviors—after which we tested the method in scientific trials across SOF, conventional forces, and the civilian world.
Here’s what we learned.
Commander’s intent requires leaders on both ends of the communication. This means leaders are necessary not just for creating and issuing intent but also for receiving and executing it. Only a leader can take intent and translate it into coordinated actions that the commander wants.
So, what’s a leader? A leader is someone who possesses vision. And vision, in turn, is the psychological capacity to create and communicate a story of the future. This is what enables leaders to influence what happens next. And what happens isn’t spreadsheets, probabilities, and other timeless datapoints. It’s temporal: actions and events, causes and effects. It’s a story.
The story nature of vision is why the same brain regions that go active in screenwriters go active when you’re leading. Screenwriters and leaders are both makers of narratives. The difference is that a successful commander brings the narrative into reality by acting on it.
Since commander’s intent requires leaders on both ends, transmitter and receiver, your communication chain must be populated with leaders. And since your communication chain extends throughout your entire organization, all your personnel—from top to bottom—need to be leaders. Everyone must be able to create and communicate stories of what happens next.
This sounds a tall order, but we know that the Army can achieve it precisely because it has achieved it, over and over. The Army boasts a centuries-long track record of creating leaders, from five-star generals to bootcamp privates. There’s just one hitch: the Army can’t say, exactly, how it created all those leaders. The secret lies buried in (you guessed it) tacit knowledge.
Let’s surface that knowledge. What the Army knows, in its bones, is that every one of us is born to lead. Our ancestors evolved in small groups that had to survive in fast-changing environments. At any moment, a fresh member of the pack might be called upon to take charge of a vital task, hatching and sharing a successful plan. The archaic humans who met that evolutionary challenge lived, passing onto us, as our biological inheritance, a brain that has leadership in its DNA.
You might not believe that. You might have seen others—or yourself—struggle to command. But that’s not because some of us missed out on the leader gene. It’s because we’ve been trained out of our biology. Our modern world immerses us, from grade school through professional military education, in logic. Logic is math, memorization, and definitions. It trains managers, because managers (unlike leaders) must be trained, since there are no large bureaucracies in nature. And it’s great that we can be managers. Managers keep standard operating procedures running when life is stable and data plentiful. But life isn’t always stable and data isn’t always plentiful—like, for example, in war. In war, every crack and crevice of operations becomes infused with volatility and fog. Which is why war makes managers confused and hesitant. And why war requires us to switch off classroom logic and switch on vision, awakening the leaders in our primal brains.
Here are three exercises to practice doing so, based on our study of high-performing SOF teams.
Exercise 1: Simplify the Future into One Critical Action and Why
When we embed with effective commanders, we repeatedly hear the same messages. Don’t make it complicated! Forget that long list of tasks! Gather your teams and say: “Here’s the main thing that happened. And here’s the big thing we do now.”
In other words: Leaders deal in stories—simple ones. And commander’s intent is one of those simple stories. It comes, always, in two parts, each reducible to a single sentence. The first part is the one imperative objective, the critical action needed for mission success: Take that hill. The second part is the reason for the objective: To provide cover for that unit below.
In short, commander’s intent is the simplest possible story of what must be done and why.
This story works for two interlocked reasons. First, the initial part of the story (which conveys what must be done) provides absolute clarity of action. Critically, it avoids the problem of dueling priorities—for example, Take that hill, and don’t lose any soldiers. Dueling priorities are two (or more) stories masquerading as one. And they are a command fail. They spawn confusion, shift liability, abandon responsibility, and splinter effect. Dueling priorities are pervasive in the modern military. But they don’t have to be. To purge them, rank your priorities into a strict hierarchy. Decide if the objective is Take that hill, with as little loss of life as possible, or Don’t lose any soldiers, but take that hill if you can. Either way, by confining your story to one critical action, your intent will be precisely clear.
Second, the next part of the story (which conveys why something must be done) allows the leader on the ground to shift the plan in response to circumstance. A leader who arrives on the scene and sees that another hill provides better cover can proceed to that other hill. Likewise, a leader who sees that the unit below has moved on will not need to take any hill at all.
Exercise 2: Break the Master Plan into Specific Stories for Each Team Element
Effective commanders don’t hand everybody the same script. They give each person a precise role by specifying that person’s one critical action in the bigger narrative.
The commander starts by writing the full script, the master plan that will produce success, and then breaks that plan into smaller scripts for the staff, who then display their own leadership by devising even smaller scripts for their subordinates.
Let’s say the master plan is Take that hill, to provide cover for the unit below. That’s the plan solely for the commander, who might tell a subordinate team leader, Put suppressive fire on that hill, so other teams can capture it. The team leader might then tell one of her soldiers, Keep the machine guns supplied with ammo, so that the gunners can continuously maintain suppressive fire.
Each individual script has the same two-part structure: the critical action and why it must be done. The objectives of these scripts stack together to support the commander’s intent—the one critical action in the commander’s master plan.
The more you practice this method, the more effective your organization will get at independently coordinating its individual actions. In effect, it will get better at communicating without comms. Each leader, from top to bottom, will improve at converting commander’s intent into simple stories for the teams below. That will in turn prompt all of these leaders to think more like a commander, making them better at understanding intent from above (or, if necessary, at providing the commander with constructive feedback to eliminate dueling priorities and sharpen intent). And this method will also help subordinates understand what information needs to be passed back up the chain to the commander. Instead of distracting the commander’s attention with news of minor setbacks and surprises, they will only relay intel that directly impacts the critical action, requiring a command-level pivot. If you are thinking that this sounds like commander’s critical information requirements (CCIR), that’s because it is. The commander had a script for how the story is going to play out. CCIR is the feedback for the commander to determine if the situation is unfolding according to the original vision, or if the plot has turned.
You will improve at executing operations, and if operations don’t work, you will know that the fault wasn’t a communication breakdown. The thing that needs fixing is the big plan.
Exercise 3: Respond to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity
The Army has long had a shorthand means of describing situations in which events are turning in ways a commander didn’t anticipate, bending and even breaking the plan: VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). In such a situation, if you can’t make contact with your commander, you must revise the plan by thinking like your commander. You must communicate without comms.
But first you must make sure that VUCA is actually occurring. Your brain comes equipped with a potent VUCA detector, known as your fight-or-flight response. That response has evolved over millions of years to be exquisitely sensitive to environmental volatility, which fight-or-flight signals by jolting you with aggression or panic. Your brain is not, however, perfect at recognizing VUCA. Sometimes (especially if you’re tired, stressed, or surprised) your fight-or-flight response fires too quickly, pushing you to change the plan when the plan is fine.
To doublecheck your fight-or-flight response, perform the leadership technique of “emotion reset.” We’ve provided detailed instructions in this Harvard Business Review article, but the skinny is this: Remember, vividly, a previous time when you’ve succeeded in a similar situation, telling your brain, We’ve done this before. If your pulse calms when you do this, then you were just imagining VUCA. Stick with the key objective that your commander issued. But if your pulse remains elevated, then VUCA is real. It’s time to review your key objective.
To accomplish that review, recall the second part of your commander’s intent: why you need execute the mission. With that why in mind, activate your leader vision and survey the situation. What’s an effective plan to achieve your commander’s why given the new conditions? What’s a good story you can create and communicate to your team?
Don’t confuse a good story with the best story. If you do, you’ll exit leader vision for manager logic, searching for more and better data, and becoming passive instead of proactive. Remember, in shifting domains, there are many possible paths to victory. Trust your common sense and take the first good route you see. Your quick initiative will boost the odds of succeeding.
That’s the basics of how to win when comms break. We could tell you more. Much more. But you’ve got our intent. You can lead yourself from here.
Angus Fletcher (PhD, Yale) is professor of story science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative. His most recent books are Wonderworks (Simon and Schuster, 2021) and Storythinking (Columbia University Press, 2023).
Lieutenant Colonel Tom Gaines is currently assigned as the ACoS G6 at 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne), Fort Liberty, North Carolina.
Special Thanks to Major Nicholas Dockery, Master Sergeant Earl Plumlee, and all the other leaders who participated in our SOF Leadership Project.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Simone Lara, US Army