4 Things a Unit Needs from its Commander

Have you ever experienced a Commander that provided little value to your unit? It may be because the commander didn’t communicate his intent or guidance. Conversely, it may be because a commander was suffocating her unit by trying to tightly control every outcome. Some commanders never seemed to advance beyond their previous role as an S3 or XO, continuing to focus on training calendars or wanting to manage personnel or maintenance reports.  Either way, the issue may be that the commander truly didn’t understand how to add value to their unit in their new position.

5 things a unit needs from its commander


This article outlines four concrete items that effective commanders provide their units with to make them successful.



Direction provides a unit with a destination. Here are 3 concrete ways to provide your unit with direction.


  • Vision– The word “vision” seems to be too abstract for some leaders. Stated another way, the commander’s vision What purpose does the unit serve? What do we want to be good at?


  • Intent-What is the purpose behind the mission given? Why are we doing what we are doing?  If your subordinates understand your intent, they may not even need to be told WHAT to do as they can generally deduce the “what if they understand the “why.” Writing your own intent instead of letting your S3 write it will help ensure it is met.


  • Priorities-Where do we focus our attention and energy? Which tasks are the most important? Setting priorities for your organization help your subordinate leaders make effective decisions and allow your staff to make better recommendations.



A commander sets the culture of their organization. This is really established by the command team (BN CDR and CSM or CO CDR and 1SG).  If you don’t intentionally pay attention to or set out to establish the culture of your unit, it will be set for you by others. The culture of a unit is set by 3 things:


  • Expectations-Commanders set expectations by communicating them with subordinates. There is no way for your subordinates to know if they are on target unless you clearly communicate what you expect out of them.


  • Example-The commander’s actions speak louder than his/her words. The example the commander sets will be followed by others over time.


  • Norms-Norms are established by accepted practices. Every time someone is punished for an action, it sends a message to others not to repeat that thing. If someone is recognized or rewarded for an action, others know that similar actions are not only acceptable but desired and will come with a reward.



Once a direction is given and the intent is understood, the commander can step back and let their team get started. Just because the destination is chosen, it doesn’t mean that the same person needs to also dictate the route, determine where the lunch stop will be, or what radio station everyone will listen to.  Getting others engaged in the vehicle will create a sense of ownership and unity in the organization.



Just because the commander provides guidance and space for the unit to achieve the intent, doesn’t mean that the commander cuts all ties to the effort. The commander must check in on the progress of efforts and maintain awareness of the pulse of the unit. You can maintain engagement in several ways:


  • Meetings. Talk to leaders in meetings to get a gauge of progress.


  • Battlefield Circulation-Bring your S3 or XO next time you check on training in the field.


Commanders that provide direction to their unit, intentionally establish the culture, give space to their unit while remaining engaged will ensure not only that you are fulfilling your role, but will make your organization more effective as well.
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3 thoughts on “4 Things a Unit Needs from its Commander

  1. I might either re-phrase “Engagement” or add a fifth thing called, “Control.” All too often I’ve seen a commander give an order and seemingly forget about it. Control is about establishing a set of markers (left and right and forward) to measure when the unit has gone off course, and that they are making progress or achieved the direction the commander gave. Just as commanders can micromanage, their inability to ensure that things are moving towards the desired end state in a manner that does not detract from the outcome (such as unsafe, illegal, unethical, or don’t pass “The 60 Minutes” test) and on time may result in a failure for the unit. If that is purpose of “Engagement,” I would offer that there are other meaningful metrics and ways to measure progress that ought to be included to the two listed methods.