Leading with Intention

leadership Sep 11, 2017

What does it take to be an intentional leader?

In various stages in my life I have been content and even thrived in my role as a nurturer or supportive. That was encouraged in me when I was growing up, when Mom was the alpha female in our family, and in faith communities, where there was a specific hierarchy in the “pecking order”.

In my early role as manager and editor the management model was authoritative, like an old-fashioned news room where there were cub reporters, re-write desks, copy editors, assignment editors, city editors, managing editors and publishers. As millennials joined my teams, that approach didn’t work anymore, they wanted, in fact insisted, on being involved in the project from the very beginning.   

Intentional leadership can be hard. Being consistent at it even more challenging.  So, identifying what to focus on is really important, if not critical to your success. If you are looking for a road map, we are living in fortunate times for there have been a number of compelling studies with top successful leaders, and their teams, about what makes a top leader tick. 

Make sure you check out Sunni Giles Salt Lake City Tedx Talk  from September 9, 2017 and check this post for the link for the recording. Her article in the Harvard Business Journal about the top skills for leadership broke new ground and provided new revelations about what’s expected in leadership today and what will be even more important in the future.

The skills that rose to the top in her study of 195 leaders around the world, revealed that showing strong ethics and providing safety are top in importance, followed by self-organizing and communicating expectations. Today and tomorrow’s leaders need to nurture growth and be open to new ideas, create a sense of team so that they succeed and fail together, not as individuals.  Providing a safe environment is becoming really important for developing the next generation of leaders.  That sounds to me like the skills that women, and probably men, develop as parents.

When I think back to my first experience with self-organized, it was when my HR manager and I hired a group of interns from a university which encouraged team learning. Their group task was to flush out, or put meat on, the overarching themes I had mapped out. I felt free to make suggestions, lead brain-storming and develop strategy, which is what I love. Because their education was first rate, I didn’t need to worry about granular editing.  Yes, there were some errors, a speaker’s books not arriving in time for the presentation, and typos in the conference publications, but basically it went well. In fact, the intern coordinating the speakers leveraged my role as a leader by convincing one reluctant and amazing speaker to participate because she told him how I would be devastated if he didn’t come! Before climate change was well recognized he was an expert on how fresh water ponds on multi year ice in the Artic head life that his team was racing to catalogue. His message made climate change real for over 500 supply chain managers who were hearing about green procurement for the first time.

Sunni Giles says that it’s important to provide a safe environment so people can relax & the brain will have a higher capacity for social engagement, innovation and creative ability.

Early in my career, the corporate mantra seemed to be “If you are fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.”

Through the 80 & 90s, there was a management strategy that said, “If you do a good job you get to keep it.” Talk about stress!

Are you making sure people feel safe job #1?  I’ve found that talking in the third person, and focusing on actions rather than people, can help diffuse a situation. For example, if there is water running out the bathroom and down the hall, you’ll probably get more help by saying, “The bathtub is flowing over, can someone get a pail?” than yelling “Holy cow, what did you do? We’ll be flooded out of house and home!”  The latter response might be easier and probably be my first inclination, however harder the first one may be, it is the one that is going to get better results.

Even if you haven’t always acted ethically, provided clear objectives, or nurtured a safe environment, there is always room for change. Like the husband’s pledge I heard on the Canadian handyman comedy show “I can change, if I have to, I guess.” 

When I’m looking at reinventing myself, I find that by “stalking” or almost obsessively following people, like Sunni Giles, because they seem to be doing the right things right, I can get closer to my ideal.  We are not living in authoritarian times any more, where managers mapped out tasks and assigned them. Sunni Giles points out that empowered team are more productive, pro-active and more satisfied with their jobs. This is critical in this day and age when millennials have little corporate loyalty and when job dissatisfaction is at an all-time high.

If you’ve been hearing about mindfulness and neuroscience, then you might have heard about the amygdala or what Buddhists call the “monkey brain”. I know my monkey brain is in control if I stay on task for less than 10 minutes, check email frequently, or have difficulty making a decision. If we let the “monkey brain” or our “flight or fright” reflex take control, Giles says we lose access to social engagement and creativity and drive for excellence is inhibited.

What do you want people to remember you for and what are your values? When people trust you, they’ll go to the wall and leap tall buildings for you. I remember the inspiring “Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who developed cancer at a young age and left behind a wife and three small children. Pausch said that leadership was tackling the hardest job yourself. He grew up cleaning beakers in his father’s lab, and he said he always kept the job of vacuuming the lab for himself because it was the toughest job and he could get his student teams to work harder.  So, what is the grittiest task for your team?  Are you up to doing it yourself?


Check if and how you are being intentional.

1)      Are you modulating your mood to be consistent?

2)      Are you providing a safe environment for your team to be able to be relaxed and innovative?

3)      Are you joyfully taking on the “heavy lifting” jobs so your team can try harder and achieve more?

4)      What else can you do to encourage innovation?


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