I was recently having coffee with the chairman of the board for my organization, in one of our regular meetings that helps us stay connected. As we were discussing our way through several topics that needed our attention, we sidetracked into a conversation about some intentional communication we were working on. In the context of this conversation, he shared a statement that one of his own coworkers often said: “You’re either living by default or by design.”
When I heard him make this statement, I immediately thought of a parallel truth that also applies to the practice of leadership, which is that your leadership likewise needs to be by design, not by default. Translated, this means that everything you do in your leadership ought to be done intentionally; if it is not, circumstances and other people will dictate what happens, and you will be left with having to reactively respond, rather than proactively leading and directing. You see, effective leadership needs to be intentional leadership, which is why it is a concept that has become a (very intentional) part of how I lead.
I have often said, when in a leadership role, that there is very little that I don’t do on purpose. In other words, most of what I do is on purpose or for a purpose. It may seem that this is an obvious statement, and in one way it is, in that it is a leadership principle that makes sense. However, it generally requires a much more intentional effort to be intentional than most would realize! The reason for this is that intentionality, or ‘intentionalness’ (a made-up word), needs to be woven into even the most minor and trivial things for it to be effective, which requires much more work than being intentional in major or obvious ways.
Edgar Schein explains this same idea in Organizational Culture and Leadership (2010) when he talks about Primary Culture Embedding Mechanisms, which he lists as attention, reaction, allocation, example, rewards, and recruiting. It is interesting to note that none of these are actions, or embedding mechanisms, that happen randomly or by chance; rather they all must be actions that leaders intentionally take to embed cultural changes within an organization or environment. He goes on to emphasize the importance of the mechanism of attention, and says, “the most powerful mechanism that founders, leaders, managers, and parents have available for communicating what they believe in or care about is what they systematically pay attention to.” (p. 237) He then illustrates this further when says that “even casual remarks and questions that are consistently geared to a certain area can be as potent as formal control mechanisms and measurements.” (p. 237) The point that he makes is that the leader must be intentional about the way he conducts himself in front of and in interaction with his followers, even in the details of choices of words and comments.
It may be easier to identify and establish this characteristic in organizations as a whole than in individuals, because organizational culture tends to more easily be intentional and deliberate due to their complexity and size (like the greater deliberation it takes to turn a battleship as compared to a canoe). Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), says it this way: “Organizations are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors, because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures.” (pp. 417-418) In the same way, however, individuals can develop a more intentional way of thinking and acting by forcing themselves to think more slowly, deliberately, and orderly until it becomes more natural.
So if leaders are more effective when they are proactively intentional, then what does it look like in practice? It can be demonstrated by consciously asking yourself why something is done a certain way, and then thinking through or dialoguing options and ideas in order to make sure that what you are doing is for the right purpose and in the best way. It could involve making it safe for someone to make a mistake and allowing that person to fail so that he will learn and grow, and then stepping in to be a positive component of his or her growth process. Or perhaps it is choosing words that will be best understood in the organizational context and choosing to avoid words that would have a negative cultural connection in that same context (for example, in one organization in which I worked, I discovered that the word “debrief” caused much anxiety, which I could eliminate by using “review” or “talk through” instead). In the many decisions that you make every day, these and many other actions and words are simple (and often minor) communication and relationship practices that you as a leader can do – intentionally – that will enhance your leadership effectiveness.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th Edition ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.