Intentional Leadership

Intentional Leadership by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by MeatFireGood, Available at

Have you ever seen someone who doesn’t have a plan or a purpose try to lead? Most of their “leading” is reacting to conditions and problems. This isn’t very effective, is it? These are not people who inspire followers or effect organizational change. I argue that they are not really leaders at all. A person already in a position of leadership must be intentional and purposeful in thoughts, decisions, and actions. Effective leadership does not happen accidentally.

Several years ago, I was conducting research on effective leadership for a project and I interviewed a high school principal. This leader had a very good reputation among parents, teachers, staff, and students alike — quite an accomplishment for someone in this line of work! In the interview, I was searching for the techniques, strategies, and tools of leadership that had led to his success. I wasn’t getting much, but then he opened the door to a tremendous insight.

He said that one of the foundations of his success, and that of any leader, is intentionality. He pointed out that leaders must have purpose in everything they do. Merely reacting to what has happened, especially problems, is not leadership. Instead, effective leaders consider the factors of a given situation, analyze the details, and synthesize a response that fulfills purposes for the organization and for the individuals involved. The principle of intentional leadership is important when responding to problems and also when being proactive in organizational improvement.

I once watched the unfolding of a bad situation in a manufacturing company. The production crew cranked out their product day after day and week after week. They had their system and process fine-tuned and knew the production equipment well. It was old equipment, though, and it was rather finicky. They made adjustments along the way, but one thing they failed to do for a period was regular maintenance. Sure enough, maintenance was ignored too long and there was a catastrophic equipment failure that shut down production. The operations manager’s reaction was a verbally violent castigation of the production team and a very tense office atmosphere for anyone not directly involved.

There were two failures of intentionality in this situation. First, the production team did not display intention in their management of a precious production resource. It seems their “accidental intention” was to find the easiest way to coast through the day. They knew the proper maintenance procedures, but chose not to do them. This eventually led to “leadership by reaction” to a problem, which isn’t leadership at all. The better approach would have been to be intentional about their stewardship of their equipment and thus daily invest in its proper care.

The second failure of intentionality was the operations manager’s “leadership by reaction” in how he dealt with the problem. It seems his “accidental intention” was that the production team should fear him and to make himself feel powerful. From what I know of the situation, they did not fear him. They disrespected him and he was not perceived as a powerful person at all. His better approach would have been to intentionally train and develop his people in a way that would produce permanent change in behavior and attitude.

About a week ago, my karate instructor, Sa Bom Nim Ellenbecker, said something rather profound. We were in the midst of a series of basics drilling, during which he watched our technique and provided instruction for improvement based on what he saw. During this session he admonished us to:

Watch with the intent to learn.
Listen with the intent to learn.
Act with the intent to change.

This is a simple and profound approach to learning any skill or promoting personal development of any kind. Students must carefully watch and listen during instruction. Then, when it is time to apply what has been learned, the intent must be to act in a different and better way than the previous attempts. As I pondered this idea, I realized that these admonitions are at the heart of intentional leadership, too.

Leaders should watch their surroundings and the people with whom they live and work with the intent to learn. Events of the times and people’s behavior provide leaders with insights into what is important and how others feel about that. Leaders should also listen to what others say, both agreement and disagreement, with the intent to learn. What people say about events and their own actions are another window into values, beliefs, and attitudes. The more a leader understands these factors, the better they will be able to …

Act with the intent to change. A leader’s actions, tied to what has been learned while watching and listening, should always be intended toward change. A leader’s primary responsibility is to move the organization forward to a better state, through change. This cannot be achieved, though, without watching and listening with the intent to learn and acting with the intent to change.

Are you an intentional leader?

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