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Creating High-Performing Leaders and Teams

  • Publish Date: Posted over 5 years ago
  • Author: Andrew McKnight

Creating High-Performing Leaders and Teams

This blog post is part of a series on How the Marine Corps Creates High-Performing Teams. Read the intro and Part 1 before continuing.

Creating High-Performing Leaders and Teams

The world’s 911 force, the United States Marine Corps, must be able to operate in any location throughout the world with a short notice, and be able to sustain operations for a period of time without logistical support. The potential for an incredibly vague and rapidly changing environment provides the necessary justification to creating teams that can perform without question—regardless of the situation at hand.

This second post of a four-part series on How the Marine Corps Creates High-Performing Teams will focus on the approach that high-performing teams are accompanied by high-performing leaders. In order for a team to reach a high-performing level, they must have the leadership that gives them the ability to execute their mission.

This presents itself in understanding the leadership objectives and qualities, implementing commander’s intent, and embracing a Marine Corps philosophy of “Centralized Planning, Decentralized Execution”.

I do want to make a disclaimer: when this series talks about teams, think of this as any team. It could be a scrum team, a management team, the executive board…it doesn’t matter what type of ‘team;’ high-performing teams and high-performing leaders will exhibit these qualities and characteristics.

Leadership Objectives

The Marine Corps leaders’ core focus is the accomplishment of two leadership objectives. These two objectives embody everything a leader must do to be successful. These leadership objectives are not in priority order, although the first objective is dependent upon the successful accomplishment of the second.

The first Marine Corps Leadership Objective is Mission Accomplishment. While the environment the Marines work in is more severe than what we realize as our day-to-day, in the corporate world, we have the same goal. Successful organizations have a clear understanding of their mission and vision.

We covered having a shared vision, values, goals and attitudes, also known as culture, in the first part of this series, but having an understanding and focus on mission accomplishment is the only thing that will help the organization move forward, toward the vision.

For high-performing leaders to achieve success with this leadership objective, they must take a goal-oriented approach. A leader must identify long-term goals for the team and the short-term steps the organization needs to take to achieve those goals.

And, to successfully and consistently achieve Mission Accomplishment, a Marine leader must seek Troop Welfare, or Team Welfare. It is the individual teams that will execute to achieve the stated mission with cooperation and participation from the leader.

Troop/Team Welfare requires empathy on the part of the leader to make sure that the needs of those in the team are looked after. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure the team has the skills, capabilities, training, tools and environment necessary to achieve Mission Accomplishment.

A leader cannot provide a team with goals that exceed the above attributes of the team. If you have a team of .Net developers, and you give them a PowerBuilder (yikes!) application to build upon, they will likely struggle to achieve their goals; however, a high-performing leader will either identify the appropriate team or provide a team with the necessary training, capabilities and tools to learn the new skill.

Leadership Qualities

There is widespread agreement that effective team leaders focus on purpose, goals, relationships and an unwavering commitment to results that benefit both the organization and individual. In doing so, they exhibit certain leadership qualities for the team.

A leader will not only ensure the team is familiar with the purpose, goals and approach of the mission, but also make the purpose, goals and approach relevant and meaningful to the team. Failure to do this will result in a team that lacks motivation and perspective.

A team does not naturally have commitment and confidence to the mission or their abilities. A high-performing leader will continuously build these within the team. This will typically be done by providing opportunities for the team to succeed and encouragement to excel.

Marines are always finding ways to build greater expertise in their craft. Ensuring that team members constantly enhance their skills is essential for high-performing leaders to building commitment and confidence, and the continued pursuit of high-performance.

The Marines train consistently and constantly when they are actively working a mission.  This training provides them with the muscle memory necessary to accomplish their responsibilities regardless of the environment, but it also provides the leader with the ability to stretch the team and help them learn new, more advanced skills. High-performing teams must likewise find opportunities to enhance their skills and gain new skills. If the rate of change is so high in the market, then high-performing teams must always be able to keep up with this rate of change.

Another key quality of a high-performing leader should sound pretty familiar to the Agile community. A high-performing leader must manage relationships from the outside with a focus on the removal of obstacles that might hinder group performance.

I am often asked by clients, “What is the role of a manager if the teams are self-organizing, and committing to work they choose?”

I like to describe one of the responsibilities of an agile manager as a “Super Scrum Master.” That is, they should be a servant leader to the team and help remove impediments to team progress and performance. Those impediments can come in the form of interruptions from outside the team in which the manager will likely have more influence the scrum master, and they can come in the form of a lack of training, skills, capabilities, tools, etc. An agile manager should be hyper-focused on removing these impediments.

Commander’s Intent

Commander’s Intent succinctly describes what constitutes success. It includes the purpose, key tasks, and the conditions that define the end state. It links the mission, concept of operations, and tasks to subordinate units.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding Commander’s Intent. I highly recommend David Marquet’s book, Turn this Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, which does an incredible job explaining this concept.

What I will say, is Commander’s Intent is essential to enabling the final sections of this blog post. The Marine Corps philosophy of “Centralized Planning, Decentralized Execution” is crucial to the incredible successes and victories when facing overwhelming odds. Without Commander’s Intent, the ability for individual teams to understand how their execution is linked to the overall mission wouldn’t exist and would likely lead to teams adjusting plans that conflict with the overall mission.

Marine Corps philosophy of “Centralized Planning, Decentralized Execution”

The final section of this part of the series is what brings the Leadership Objectives, Qualities and Commander’s Intent together to fully enable high-performing teams by leadership.

The concept of Centralized Planning, Decentralized Execution is probably not what you would expect to hear when it comes to military operations; and you are right in most cases. Actually, in any case of the United States military, except the Marine Corps, it doesn’t exist. The Army, Navy and Air Force are largely command and control organizations. It isn’t unheard of to have an Army Colonel directing individual units on the ground across the entire theater of operations.

The Marines take another approach. This approach is leveraging the expectation that every Marine is an expert in their field, that they are a high-performing team. The smallest unit in the Marine Corps is called a Fire Team. A Fire Team is made up of 4-5 cross-functional Marines, each with a specific job to do on the team.

Creating High-Performing Leaders and Teams

Who do you believe has the most current, accurate information during an operation? Would you agree it would be those that are actually executing the operation?

What the Marines do, is empower and give the authority to these Fire Teams to adjust their plan in order to accomplish their mission.

But how do they know if their adjusted plan is the right decision? Because of Centralized Planning, Decentralized Execution.

What happens is the Regiment or Division has a mission. At this level, they are creating a mission that consists of the coordination of more than 3,000 Marines. So, the Division mission will be to Secure Helmand Province. They will issue mission orders to the Battalions (5-6) that are subordinate units to the Division. These missions will align with each other, so that when that Battalions accomplish their missions, then the Division will have overall mission accomplishment.

The Battalions will do the same breakdown of their mission to the Companies, Companies to Platoons, Platoons to Squads, and Squads to Fire Teams. The key here is that success at the lower level guarantees success at the higher levels, but the true execution happens at the Fire Team.

Do we believe that our agile teams have the most current, accurate information in order to make the decisions necessary to adjust their plan and ultimately accomplish their mission? In my experience, when they have the commitment, confidence, skills and capabilities to do so, yes!

This is the tough part…most organizations don’t filter cascading missions. An organization will have a big mission statement, and each functional group is responsible for determining the best way of achieving it. This doesn’t work, because we aren’t planning centrally. We aren’t ensuring that the missions and goals created within each of these functional groups align across the functions.

You then begin to have dysfunction across functional areas because we’re all trying to achieve our own mission, not the organization’s.


In the first part of this series, we talked about how you must create a shared set of values, attitudes, and beliefs (aka culture) before you can begin to create teams. Without a macro-culture in your organization, that permeates throughout, you will never achieve consistent, high performance across teams.

Once you have a macro-culture in which to build high-performing teams on top, you then need to ensure you have high-performing leaders that can nurture these teams into high performance. This requires that leaders exhibit those qualities typically seen in high-performing leaders and empower their teams to accomplish their mission.

In the next part of this series, I will dive into how teams must master a set of tactical concepts in order to leverage the culture and high-performing leaders that are in place.