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David O'Connor - Director of Learning and Innovation at Common Purpose / 29 August 2023
Leaders who are truly intentional tend to be invisible. Here’s how to recognize it.
If they can disappear… that’s the most intentional leader you’ll get.
Upon first glance, defining intentional leadership seems easy. It’s someone who has a clear purpose in mind who builds the resource and capacity to bring it into fruition. But when you dive deeper into the real meaning of being intentional, you’ll find it’s a lot more complex.
In its purest form, true intentional leadership is actually invisible because the leader’s agenda is carried out not only by them, but by a host of people they have effectively and nurturingly led.
So what does an intentional leader actually look like? Here, we unpack three defining traits an intentional leader possesses so you can recognize it in action, and work towards it yourself. When they’re combined, real impact awaits.
In order to create disruption where disruption is needed, or to introduce new perspectives, a leader must be willing to experiment. Experimentation encompasses a myriad of leadership traits that are commonly necessary: The ability to be agile, flexible, innovative and willingness to try new things.
To be experimental, and subsequently to be intentional, a leader should become comfortable challenging themselves. Imagine a conversation with someone that might be difficult to have, but knowing that its outcome could contribute towards a positive shift in perspective for others.
Or perhaps it’s identifying a behaviour or pattern you think is slowing down your own, or your team’s progress, and suggesting a new way of working in order to change it.
Picture this:As a manager, you believe you might talk a little too much, to the point where you’re not allowing others to chime in with their own ideas which are essential to broadening the horizons of your organization. So, you make a conscious effort to talk less, and you allow silences to simply be silences without filling in the gaps. It might result in continuous stone-cold silence, or perhaps someone else with a valuable thought or opinion may take that window of opportunity and share it. Whatever the outcome, you’ve trialled something. If it works, brilliant. If it doesn’t, you trial other options until something sticks.
In order to be intentional, you must be willing to learn, unlearn, and re-learn. Of course, this is part and parcel of practicing experimentation (and it’s particularly important when experiments are not successful). By actively seeking opportunities to learn more and to improve yourself, only then can you feel best equipped to help others to improve and to learn more themselves.
The interesting thing about adopting a growth mindset is that you’ll probably end up learning things you never actively intended to pursue, yet you won’t know what you would’ve done had you never learned it. That’s the great thing about being open to expanding your knowledge in whatever context you find yourself in – you never know what could be on the horizon.
Picture this: Whenever you get a new client or a new project to work on, you don’t assume anything. Instead, you put time in with the client, or you block out time reading and researching the topic with the intention of allowing yourself to learn in order to throw yourself into that world. That might look like an hour-long phone call with the CEO, or spending an afternoon familiarizing yourself with a brand’s tone or language. These are small ways to better understand the work that you do, and it subsequently allows you to confidently share this information with your team, resulting in better outcomes for all.
This is both the most crucial, and the most interesting part of intentional leadership. Purpose is at the very epicentre of being intentional, because without a strong sense of belief in your purpose, how can you expect to feel motivated to strive towards it?
The best place to start is with your ‘why’. Once you’ve landed on this, consider what change needs to occur in order for your ‘why’ to come into being, for others to be inspired by it and for you to better acknowledge where others may b coming from with their purpose.
Once you’ve identified this, you will need to remain committed, persistent and determined. If you truly believe in your ‘why’, this will keep you going – no matter the challenges you might face to get there.
Picture this:You work in administration for an organization that provides food and essential items to displaced people in your local city. As someone who is passionate and dedicated to giving back, whether or not this comes from personal experience, you remain consistently driven, motivated and you are always looking for new opportunities to better the impact your organization has. You continue do this even when the tangible result isn’t necessarily always visible to you, because you understand that your contribution is fulfilling a greater purpose, and you’re aware of your part in this.
The thing that sets intentional leadership apart from other key leadership pillars is that it’s the most personal and inward, meaning it’s much more difficult to quantify. While traits like being courageous, or equitable or agile directly have an impact on others, being intentional happens in the smaller, seemingly mundane actions. It’s an intentional silence here, or a question to deepen your own understanding there. It’s replying to emails and answering calls for an entire day and continuing to feel motivated and driven because you know how much impact you have in the bigger picture. Being intentional is about turning inward and taking a long, hard look at yourself, thinking about what you could change or do more of, and then taking steps to go and do it. And it’s for this reason, we can conclude, that intentional leadership is not necessarily visible. Instead of looking for ‘the’ intentional leader, look for the cohort of people who are united in working towards something good, and recognize that genuine, self-imposed intentional leadership is what landed them there.