Intentional Leadership – are you leading by accident?

There is a big difference between having intentions and leading intentionally. We all have daily intentions; these are what we plan to do, or our thoughts about what we could do. Some are little (like whether you’ll opt for the healthy salad at lunch), while some are bigger (like whether you’ll take the job offer).

In contrast, leading intentionally requires action. Your good intention as a leader is meaningless without the necessary action that brings it to life. Once your positive intent is put into action in the world, then you are leading intentionally.

But, as well all know, the challenge is that sometimes it’s easier to just go with the flow.

intentional leaders

For example, we’ve all experienced a meeting run by a less-than-intentional leader I’m sure! No accountability is agreed, people leave the meeting before it ends to attend to other priorities, and most people are left wondering – why am I even in this room if no one else cares?

How do you know if you’re an unintentional leader?

There are a few common hallmarks of the less-than-intentional leader and if you recognise yourself in any of these scenarios, don’t despair!

Poor meeting management, including no agenda, little to no facilitation of healthy discussion, no accountability or expectations of outcomes, as well as poor time management.

Poor time management. Many leaders are just too busy to be intentional. Travel, competing meetings, change of senior leadership, work on special projects etc. These can all derail any positive intentions a good leader might have.

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How intentional leaders are different

Judy Nelson, author of Intentional Leadership: Using Strategy in Everything You Do and Say, suggests that an intentional leaders’ every action is deliberate and designed to secure a particular outcome.

I believe it goes even further than this.

Intentional leaders focus on creating meaningful progress by doing work that only they can do and empowering others to do the same.

Why ‘meaningful progress’?

Research by Teresa Annabile and Stephen Kramer explored what makes employees enthusiastic about work. They asked 600 managers across different industries and analysed nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees in 7 companies.

The results?

Five influencing factors that make employees enthusiastic about work:

  1. Recognition for good work (this was top for managers)
  2. Incentives and rewards
  3. Interpersonal support
  4. Clear targets and goals
  5. A clear sense of progress (this was top for employees)

So, what does this tell us about how an intentional leader can leverage an employee’s enthusiasm?

Annabile and Kramer suggest two powerful forces that enable progress:

  1. Catalysts – these are events that directly facilitate project work, such as clear goals and autonomy.
  2. Nourishers – these are interpersonal experiences that uplift workers and include things such as encouragement and demonstrations of respect and collegiality.

Aren’t progress and performance just different ways of saying the same thing?

Not exactly, no.

Progress involves development over time or advancement through a series of events, or points in time.

On the other hand, performance is the act of performing; it is about achievement and is accomplishment focussed. This connects with Carol Dweck’s work on growth and fixed mindsets, in which a fixed mindset focusses on achieving outcomes over learning.

It also matters whether we set performance or learning goals.

Performance goals are about “winning positive judgments of your competence and avoiding negative ones.” So when people pursue performance goals they want to look smart – to themselves or others – and avoid looking dumb. This usually leads them to ‘play it safe’.

Learning goals
 are about increasing competence. “It reflects a desire to learn new skills, master new tasks, or understand new things—a desire to get smarter.

Both types of goal can drive achievement, however overall, there is evidence that focussing too much on performance rather than learning outcomes leads to a fragile sense of competence, reduced perseverance and resilience and a reluctance to take on developmental feedback.

>>Related post: What Motivates Great Leaders To Achieve Their Goals?<<

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The words we use matter

When there is a focus on progress rather than performance we see a shift in perspective in the following ways:

  • Vertical and horizontal learning is important (i.e. promotion of learning the next step in a sequence as well as a focus on generalizability and functionality).
  • The diversity and variability in skills, perspectives and ideas are acknowledged and valued.
  • Quantitative and qualitative data are considered useful in assessing individual and team performance.

The task of leadership is to be intentional about the way we group people and the questions that we engage them in.

~ Peter Block

What happens when we become intentional about learning goals?

When we achieve accidental performance there is little learning involved, and so replicating that success in the future is hard – it’s a one-hit wonder. This is what I call ‘Lucky Success’.

If we make accidental progress we learn just by being in the environment. Because it wasn’t something we were aiming to do, we may not get as much learning out of the experience as we could have, but we are able to draw on the knowledge gained in the future. This is ‘Learning by Osmosis’.

When we intentionally achieve performance, our eyes are on the prize – KPIs, goals, outcome measures etc. – and this can create an attitude of ‘Winning at all costs’.

If we aimed for intentional progress, we create an environment in which learning focusses on moving us closer to achieving mid and long-term goals. Because of this, learning is meaningful and, more importantly, replicable, which means progress gains momentum and is easier to make in the future.

This is ‘Purposeful Progress’.

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How can you be a more intentional leader?  

According to the Bates ExPI leadership assessment that measures executive presence, there are some simple ways that you can adopt to become a more intentional leader:

Clarify mission, goals, objectives and priorities: Create a clear picture of where you’re going and why, and give people reason to care.

Slow down to speed up: Once you’ve identified these priorities, leave time for discussion so people can raise questions, discuss sticking points and get clarity.

Stay attuned to the ebbs and flows: Keep lines of communication open, learn about issues, pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Alignment requires sustained effort.

Become an excellent leader of meetings: You can have the best of intentions but agenda and process trump hopes and wishes every time.

Cultivate a discipline of intentionality: Leadership is about mindfulness, and if you’re constantly in a rush and don’t have time to think, you cannot be intentional. Find quiet time to give yourself clarity on projects and priorities and set your own intentions.

Be clear about meaningful progress: provide clarity of goals, expectations and responsibilities and never assume others know what you want.

Deliberately focus on actions that take you closer to the long-term goal – identify what your team needs to do and deliver to contribute to making progress.

Make progress visible and transparent: provide measurable and meaningful KPIs and report on them regularly and often.

Identify the work that only you can do as a leader and empower others to do the same.

Being intentional does not mean telling people what to do, nor is it a ruthless adherence to a plan.

Intentional leaders hold the natural tension that exists in the need to focus on a plan and be flexible in its execution.

They encourage discussion in their teams and create space in meetings for it to evolve. They encourage people to speak up and empower them to make decisions, and do the work that they need to do, to make purposeful progress.

They are clear about deadlines, ownership and accountability – and they make them public to create a culture of follow through and intentionality.

It takes intention to be an intentional leader; it doesn’t happen by accident or osmosis but it does have significant impact when you do.

I can help you dial up the intentionality in your leadership. Contact me about some coaching, mentoring or a ‘Pick my Brains’ session.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.