Intentional leadership

What it is and how to help leaders to develop it

When faced with complex challenges, we do not want leaders who make rash decisions or are more interested in protecting their interests than doing what is right.

Instead, in today’s complex and uncertain business environment, we need leaders who know they don’t have all the answers and need others to find new solutions and make progress. We need thoughtful leaders who decide to do what is right, even if that may come at a personal cost.

In short, we need intentional leaders. And below we’ll deconstruct the anatomy of an intentional leader and what it takes to foster intentional leadership.

Intentional leadership deconstructed: Five essential qualities

For most leaders, their daily leadership is an accidental combination of many small, primarily unintentional actions and reactions. They start each day with the best of intentions to be measured, rational, and focused. But as the day progresses and the stress of deadlines, urgent decisions, and difficult colleagues builds, their self-control wanes, and they find themselves acting in unthinking and impulsive ways.

In short, most leaders are defined by their default habits. Not by choice, but because they have never been challenged to do the work of consciously choosing and adopting the behaviors and mindset of a good leader. Yes, they may have undertaken training in specific hard leadership skills such as strategic thinking or delegating effectively. However, they haven’t been asked to consider what it means to lead well on a daily basis, under all circumstances and how to modulate their behavior and mindset to do so.

In contrast, an intentional leader consciously chooses how he shows up as a leader – each day, under all circumstances. An intentional leader doesn’t act reflexively, unthinkingly, or impulsively, but instead is deliberate in how he fulfills his role as a leader in each moment. In doing so, an intentional leader seeks to actively cultivate and live up to 5 sets of essential qualities:

  1. Deliberate & thoughtful
  2. Composed & resilient
  3. Humble & inclusive
  4. Determined & courageous
  5. Trustworthy & other-focused

Let’s explore what each involves and how we can help leaders cultivate these key qualities to become intentional leaders.

Deliberate & thoughtful

Every day, leaders are tasked with proactively guiding and supporting employees towards their shared goal and dealing with obstacles that pop up along the way to that goal.

When doing that, intentional leaders are highly aware of the impact of their actions on their employees, both individually and as a group. They know that their employees interpret everything they say, do or emote as cues to inform their actions and behaviors. They know that they are their team’s climate thermostat – driving the team’s energy, optimism, and attitudes. They consciously consider and choose their actions and behavior to best support, enable, empower and develop their employees.

Intentional leaders don’t approach their days on a “fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants” basis. They don’t react reflexively, unthinkingly, and impulsively to any events and interactions they have that day. Instead, they take the time to define and articulate their leadership philosophy and to cultivate their leadership presence.

Guiding leaders to define and write down their leadership philosophy prompts them to crystallize the beliefs they want to live up to and lead by every day to be an example to their people of what they should aim for. Articulating how they want and need to show up as a leader each day to achieve their goal is an essential first step in creating intentional leaders. Everything else builds from this.

Writing it down isn’t enough. Leaders have to execute on it, and that is why intentional leaders proactively consider their leadership presence – how they want and need to look and be perceived by others each day.

Composed & resilient

Lack of control over their emotions and appetites is what gets a lot of leaders in trouble. While most leaders intend to pursue and model “good leadership,” in reality, most fluctuate almost daily between being both good and bad leaders. Because, as the everyday pressure cooker of leadership heats up, or when an unexpected event triggers a crisis, their dark side bubbles to the surface, triggering them at times to make rash decisions or to act reflexively, driven by their fears and urges, rather than reason.

To counteract this, an intentional leader actively cultivates their self-discipline. An intentional leader seeks to not react emotionally or impulsively to the many pressures and unexpected curve balls that are part of being a leader. Instead, they double down on trying to master their own emotions at all times, enabling them to rationally evaluate the events or circumstances and then choose how to respond. So the ideal for an intentional leader is to act rather than react.

“In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves … self-discipline with all of them came first.” Harry S. Truman

Humble & Inclusive

As leaders climb the corporate ladder, many think they’ve learned enough and are better and know more than those they lead. But in doing so, they overlook the fact which Einstein so aptly expressed when he said,

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

For a leader to think that they have all the answers in today’s uncertain and complex business environment is hubris. Such self-assuredness will lead to suboptimal decisions, costly mistakes, and missed opportunities.

Instead, intentional leaders focus actively on practicing and maintaining humility to curb such inclinations. So instead of giving into their ego and acting like an all-knowing leader who “gives advice” or “the answer,” they humbly admit they don’t know the answer and focus on leading with questions and actively listen to the opinions and contributions of others.

Intentional leaders aren’t interested in swaying others or winning arguments. They would instead engage in dialogue to seek out different perspectives to deepen their understanding of what is going on and their options.

However, don’t for one moment think that this humility means that intentional leaders are weak or meek or indecisive. Quite the opposite, they’re leaders who have the courage and curiosity to embrace uncertainty and ask for help. They aren’t interested in being right, nor do they mind being proven wrong. They’re just interested in finding the best way forward to succeed.

Courageous & determined

Leaders are on the hook for the outcomes of their decisions. That accountability can cause leaders to make suboptimal decisions or not to decide at all for all reasons. For example, sometimes, they delay decision-making because they doubt their ability to make the right decision. Or they delay deciding because they fear becoming unpopular. But leaders who lack the courage to make decisions, for whatever reason, undermine the progress of their organizations.

Intentional leaders know that it takes courage to act. They know it takes courage to challenge conventional wisdom and envision a new future. They know it takes courage to stand up for the right thing.

And they know that a lack of courage leads to mediocrity.

That’s why they actively focus on developing their foresight and honing their decision-making and risk management skills and mindsets to give them the necessary independence of thought and the ability to act with resolve in even the most ambiguous situations.

So intentional leaders pair that humility we discussed above with fierce resolve and ambition to do what is necessary to make progress.

Trustworthy & other-focused

Leaders know that having the trust of their employees and peers is essential for them to lead effectively. However, too many leaders still believe that trust is something they, as the leader, can request or even demand from their employees and peers. In doing so, they fail to realize that trust is something they need to engender as a leader. And that takes conscious effort, because unfortunately, most leaders, because they are human, engage frequently and unwittingly in trust-destroying behavior as they try to deal with the pressures of meeting after meeting difficult colleagues, pressing deadlines, and stakeholders with different and often opposing expectations.

For example, they overpromise and underdeliver. Or they snap at an employee because they’ve had a bad day. Or they fail to share information to avoid being challenged on an issue. Or they decide to cover up a mistake. Or they speak badly of someone in their absence. Or blame others for mistakes or bad results.

This is why building and maintaining trust is so hard as a leader. Every day, in everything they say, do or decide, they need to behave in ways that underscore their trustworthiness, proving their genuine caring for the greater good and showing their competence.

However, that requires daily reflection and practice to maintain the necessary level of mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-control. And that is what intentional leaders do. They are committed to leading with integrity – i.e., to walk their talk every day; they practice what they preach. In doing so, they engender the trust needed to lead effectively.

In addition to their focus on leading with integrity, intentional leaders are also aware that they can become disconnected from the needs and emotions of those they lead because of their elevated position. But a leader cannot lead people they do not understand.

So to avoid this pitfall, an intentional leader proactively focuses on staying attentive to the emotions and needs of those they lead. They proactively engage those they lead to understand their experience and better understand what they might need to thrive. This is how intentional leaders ensure they don’t lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble, disconnected from the people they lead and the culture they are a part of, and end up seeing and hearing only what they want to.

Can anyone learn to be an intentional leader?

In principle, we believe that intentional leadership can be learned. But only through a continuous leadership habit-building program and not overnight by attending a three-day workshop.

However, some people may not have the seed of intentional leadership within them. Why not? Because they are leaders who are first and foremost driven by what they get – the financial reward, power, reputation, admiration, and so on. They could never prioritize the needs of the organization over their own. And such motivation and personal ambition are directly at odds with the humility and selflessness core to intentional leadership.

So, over time, anyone could become an intentional leader, as long as they aspire to lead to serve a more significant and more lasting purpose than themselves. And when they do so, they will also do well themselves in the process of doing so, but that is not what drives them.

Further reading

Today’s Leaders Need Vulnerability, Not Bravado, by Amy C. Edmondson and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Harvard Business Review,

Level 5 leadership: The Antithesis of egocentric leadership, by Jim Collins

Courage in the C-Suite,
by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business Review magazine, December 2011

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