Finding The Core At Southwest Airlines: Finding New Behaviors With Commander’s Intent

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Southwest Airlines is one of the most successful budget airlines operating in the world today.

In fact, Southwest has been consistently profitable for more than thirty years.

The secret to their success? Cutting unnecessary expenses.

And they’ve been doing it for decades.

In order for them to succeed at such a high level, they must coordinate with over 45 thousand employees, from their pilots to their baggage handlers.

They achieve this by using a “Commander’s Intent”, a core principle, that helps guide this coordination.

The Commander’s Intent

In the 1980s, the Army improved its planning process by inventing a concept called the “Commander’s Intent”.

The Commander’s Intent is a simple, no-nonsense statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal and the desired outcome of an operation. 

In their best-selling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck, brothers Chip and Dan Heath describe the Commander’s Intent in detail:

At high levels of the Army, the [Commander’s Intent] may be relatively abstract: ‘Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region’. At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete: ‘My intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of enemy, with only ineffective remnants, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines’. [1]

To reduce the risk of being rendered unusable in the event of unforeseen circumstances, the Commander’s Intent is purposely ambiguous. Regardless of their ranking, soldiers can improvise and align their behaviour without jeopardising the mission; and if need be, specify for clarification and without the need for instruction from their leaders.

In other words, how soldiers infer the Commander’s Intent is irrelevant; because of how it’s worded, everyone ultimately ends up on the same page. 

Southwest: THE Low-Fare Airline

In their book, Buck Up, Suck Up, and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room, James Carville and Paul Begal recall Herb Kelleher’s description of Southwest’s Commander’s Intent: 

I can teach you the secret to running this airline in 30 seconds. This is it: We are THE low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.

Tracey, from marketing, comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entrée on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. ‘What do you say?’

You say ‘Tracey, will adding the chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad’. [2]

This is a simple idea, but it shouldn’t disregard how powerful it is: It’s been sufficiently guiding the actions of Southwest employees for more than 30 years.

What Is Your Commander’s Intent?

A well-thought-out and simple idea can be amazingly powerful in shaping your behaviour.

Think of it as a rule. And any violation of that rule is unacceptable. Not because there are consequences, but because you simply won’t stand for it.

Your Commander’s Intent is a personal mission statement; a sentence that characterises who you are and what behaviours are excusable – and what behaviours aren’t.

If you’re dieting, your Commander’s Intent may be: “I eat healthy, except for on Saturday: that’s Cheat Day”. That becomes a decree; a guide for what’s permitted and what isn’t. Come Cheat Day on Saturday, go wild. Monday to Friday and Sunday on the other hand, prioritise healthy eating.

If you’re an entrepreneur, instructing your employees to practice The Rule of Five or The Daffodil Principle where there’s a perceived weakness, can yield higher results – and without compromising your business. “I’m committed to improving one percent daily” is not only doable, it’s motivating. How that daily one percent improvement is made, is a choice. 

Deciding “I’m a risk taker” or “I lean into fear” if you’re improving your social skills becomes a self-imposed call to action. If you hesitate to take action – be it starting a conversation with a stranger or asking for a number – a Commander’s Intent will clarify what to do. “I’m afraid” you admit to yourself “but I’m also a risk-taker” you remind yourself. You have no choice but to act. After all, a Commander’s Intent is a Commander’s Intent. 

In your hour of need, referring back to your Commander’s Intent will keep you on the straight and narrow – that is, if you choose to commit to it. Failing to do so, will result in a general malaise; a feeling of disappointment you’ll want to avoid in the future.

Choose a Commander’s Intent that will hold you to a higher standard. The person you know you can and should be. Your ideal self.

Getting More Done

The Combat Maneuver Training Center, the unit in charge of military simulations, recommends that officers arrive at the Commander’s Intent by asking themselves two questions:

“If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must . . .”

“The single, most important thing that we must do tomorrow is . . .”

Using a Commander’s Intent can help you get more done and strip your to do list down to its most important task.

“I do nothing else tomorrow, I must . . .

. . . call a prospect”.

. . . pay my credit card bill”.

. . . mail my application”.

Habits are no different.

“The single most important thing I must do tomorrow is . . .

. . . go for an eight kilometre run”.

. . . write a thousand words”.

. . . read 10% of a new Kindle book”.

Decide on a Commander’s Intent, be consistent and honour it. No one else will. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


[1] Heath, C., Heath, D. (2008) Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck, London: Random House.

[2] Carville, J., Begale, P. (2003) Buck Up, Suck Up . . . and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room, New York: Simon & Schuster.


Chip & Dan Heath for introducing me to the Commander’s Intent and Southwest. 

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