“No one sets out to intentionally be the ‘worst boss,’ but no one becomes the ‘best boss’ unless they are intentional.”

–J. Morgan, friend of 3×5 Leadership

Being an intentional leader and consistently deliberate in our approaches have become key to the few critical bedrock principles of effective leadership through more than a decade of pursuing my passion for leadership and developing other leaders. Intentional leaders who are deliberate in their approaches take ownership for their responsibilities and their team, are thoughtful in how they act and why, are careful in their decisions, remain considerate of the impacts they have, and ultimately are incredibly caring for those placed in their charge. As our friend, J. Morgan, asserts above, we cannot be the ‘best boss’ or the outstanding leader that people deserve without a consistent commitment to being intentional.

When leaders are not intentional, we fail to provide basic leadership requirements like purpose, direction, and inspiration to our teams. Unintentional leaders are often reactionary and struggle to create the structure necessary for our people and teams to thrive. Unintentional leaders do not leave lasting impacts on the people and teams they serve. We must be deliberate in our learning of, practicing, and reflecting on how we best lead and influence others.

Below, I offer eight areas where we can best be an intentional leader. Being deliberate in these areas have ultimately delivered the greatest return on investment (ROI) for team performance; most enabled the development of teams I’ve led, others, and myself; and cultivated the greatest personal fulfillment through my professional career. I encourage you to explore these concepts more deeply to improve your knowledge and begin practicing them with focus and consistency to embed them into your leader habits. Following each concept, I provide a few recommended resources to explore that one more deeply.

8 Ways to Be an Intentional Leader

1. Personal Commitment to Self-Development. Leader development occurs daily, not in a day. Former IBM CEO, Tom Watson, stated that, “Nothing so conclusively proves a person’s ability to lead others as what they do on a day-to-day basis to lead themselves.” Part of being intentional requires us to ultimately take responsibility for our own growth and development. Doing so enables us to learn from more than just our singular experiences and serve as a role model to inspire others to do the same. Consistently investing in our self-development over time is like making contributions to a savings or retirement fund – small investments made consistently over time compound leading to returns that are multiple times the size of the investment made. Intentional leaders are committed to their own self-development.

2. Ask, Listen, & Learn. Many of us view leadership as an education, where we see ourselves as the students. A habit from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is to ‘Seek to understand, then to be understood.’ Sometimes we just need to talk less and learn to listen more and listen better. Covey, quite accurately, goes on to say, “We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first.”

One way leaders can be more deliberate in this way is by leading through questions more often and learning how to ask better questions. Author of Turn the Ship Around!, L. David Marquet, talks about shifting the leader culture of his Navy submarine from a ‘knowing and telling’ organization to a ‘knowing and asking’ organization. He stated, “If you’re the kind of manager who tells your team what to do from the position that you know everything that’s necessary and you know the right way to do it, you’ve created a ‘knowing and telling’ culture. On the other hand, if you create a ‘knowing and asking’ organization, you might know the answer and direction you prefer your team takes, but you let your team discover that for themselves through dialog and encouraging questions. Instead of telling your team what to do, you give them the opportunity to figure it out on their own.” Intentional leaders ask great questions, actively and emphatically listen, delay giving advice and ‘the answer,’ and seek to learn and not to merely teach.

3. Earn Trust. Trust is the currency of leadership. Author, John Maxwell, discusses the dynamic that people buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. Or, more simply as my own mother (a deep leader philosopher in her own right!) taught me growing up: No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Our impact as leaders is capped by the ceiling of our trust earned with others. Intentional leaders are not only clear on what trust means and looks like but are also committed to cultivating it with our people…and then maintaining it every day.

4. Develop Others. Author, Simon Sinek, claims that, “The greatest contribution of a leader is to make other leaders.” I cannot agree more. Few other concepts on this list compare to the scale of or long-term impacts that building other leaders can have on the viability of our team. Intentional leaders are committed to developing other leaders and are deliberate in taking the time and effort to pour into them. Leaders solely communicating to others, “Watch how I lead and that is how I develop you into a better leader,” is a common practice we see, but is insufficient alone. While that role modeling is the critical first step, it fails to capitalize on myriad opportunities to develop others through focused activities integrated within the team. Intentional leaders create deliberately developmental organizations – teams that value the development of people as much as their team’s mission to the point that they view both as one in the same.

5. Create a Clear, Purpose-Driven Team. One definition of leadership that we align with is offered by the US Army, claiming that leaders influence others by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish our team’s mission and make the team better. But, while leaders are responsible for providing purpose and direction, we still have a systemic problem of a lack of clarity of our team’s purpose and direction. In his book, The 8th Habit, Stephen Covey reports his findings on this universal challenge of organizational clarity. Based on research with over 23,000 employees from various companies and industries, he reported that if our organizations were 11-player soccer teams, only 4 players know which goal is theirs, only 2 actually cared which goal was theirs, 2 knew what position they played, and 9 would be in some way competing against their own team members rather than the opponent. We clearly have a continued issue of creating purpose-driven and clear teams. Intentional leaders define the team’s purpose and direction, and consistently communicate that in various ways to create clarity and commitment to it across the team.

6. Communicate Perspective with Optimism & Energy. Communicating perspective means leaders showing everyone on the team who we are, what we do, and why we do it. We also show them that this is important and why; we build commitment around the idea of why our team exists, the norms that are and are not accepted, and ultimately empower everyone to act in line with the team’s best interests. But this also requires noticeable, contagious, and consistent energy. Leaders also serve as the team’s climate thermostat – driving the energy, the optimism, and attitudes of members within the team. This all requires high levels of role modeling and engagement, which is best achieved through leader presence. Intentional leaders bring energy and optimism to the team every day while communicating perspective, so every member is clear on who we are, what we do, and why we do it.

7. Build Teams. At some point in our careers, we all have (or will) make a decisive transition from valuable individual contributor within a team to being the leader or manager of one. Inherent to a leader’s responsibilities is our need to unify a group around a shared goal, task, and/or vision. Bottom line: leaders must build effective, cohesive teams. But the integration and management of multiple personalities, perspectives, and values is challenging. It can be messy and takes a lot of work. But intentional leaders are deliberate in the process of building effective, cohesive teams. We recognize and attend to group dynamics, are able and willing to fill sensitive developmental spaces with others, and hold others accountable when needed. In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle phrases this challenge well when he wrote, “One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.” Intentional leaders commit to the iterative process of team development.

8. Lead Change. Former Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, wrote in his book, Call Sign Chaos, simply that, “Leaders change and make change.” Leadership is the business of team improvement, which requires change. But change is hard, which is an understatement. Change is complex, its uncomfortable, takes considerable time, and is always faced by resistance internally within the team and externally across our environment. Change is emotional and taxing. Everyone enjoys the idea of being on exceptional, winning teams, but few are willing to commit the discipline and work necessary to achieve it. Intentional leaders are committed to leading change to improve our team, are clear on the need for change, deliberately prepare for it, commit to the long journey of implementing it, and finally anchor the change to the new identity of our team for lasting impacts. Being deliberate in leading change requires focused ways to think about and model change, so intentional leaders are also smart on how to lead effective, lasting change.

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