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Intentional Leadership: A Guide to Intention Setting

To be intentional about something is to go about it with forethought and understanding. Setting an intention is a wonderful way to focus on what you would like to gain from a certain situation or plan for how you’d like to show-up. In other words, an intention can be used as an excellent tool to practice self-management and improve your presence and impact at work. You can choose to be intentional about anything – from something small, like having an intentional conversation with your coworker, to something larger, like showing up as a leader who has clear intentions about your leadership and life.

The nice thing about setting an intention, versus, say, stating a goal or a commitment, is that setting an intention provides you some leeway. With goals and commitments, we often become focused on measuring outcomes and evaluating success. An intention cannot be objectively measured. Instead, it is an introspective commitment to yourself.  Setting an intention provides focus and direction to your actions.  Through practice, self-reflection and observing yourself in action, you can grow without the success/failure dynamic of goal attainment.

Imagine that you have an important meeting coming up at work, but the person with whom you are meeting can be difficult. Perhaps this person often interrupts, interjects with their ideas before you’ve finished speaking and can dominate the room with their loud presence. In this meeting, you know that you must be able to get your ideas across. Instead of just walking into the meeting and hoping for the best, you could set an intention before the meeting to ensure that you are not easily thrown off balance.

You could set intentions such as:

  • I intend to take two deep breaths every time I am interrupted, and then I will continue in a calm manner.
  • I intend to speak with confidence in this meeting.
  • I intend to manage my presentation and timing well so that I can get all of my points across.

Even if you do not completely fulfill your intention for that meeting or for that day, you can always come back to it the next day. Working with intentions is not a “pass or fail” method. Rather, by becoming more intentional about your participation, you can act consciously to be more effective, reflect on what you would like to work on, and then acknowledge how you did.

Here are a few more examples of intentions:

  • I intend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
  • I intend to listen deeply during this meeting.
  • I intend to ask powerful questions to broaden my understanding of the situation.
  • I intend to take three deep breaths before I speak if I feel myself getting frustrated.
  • I intend to speak clearly and succinctly during my presentation.
  • I intend not to interrupt my colleagues and let them finish their thoughts.
  • I intend to be in the moment without letting other commitments distract me from my current task.

Setting an intention can be as easy as repeating your intention in your head. However, if you would like to make intention-setting a personal strategy, follow these steps below.

Setting an intention:

  • Find a place where you can be free from distractions for a few minutes.
  • Take a moment to tune-in to how you are feeling. Notice your emotions, any stress that may be arriving, and do a quick scan of your body. If you are holding any physical tension in your body take a deep breath, directing your breath into those spots of tension while relaxing your muscles as you exhale.
  • You might choose to do a quick centering.
  • Once you’ve taken a second to quiet your mind and relax physically, reflect on whatever is coming up for you today, whether it is an upcoming meeting, an important conversation or a challenging task.
  • Begin to imagine how you’d like to participate during the next few hours. See if you can really picture yourself in your mind acting out your intention. If you can, distill your intention into one clear statement.
  • Taking a few breaths, repeat that sentence to yourself a few times. Write it down on a piece of paper somewhere where you can easily glance at it throughout the day.
  • After you’ve set your intention, continue with your day.
  • As you navigate the next few hours, return to your intention frequently, repeating your sentence a few times to yourself. Make sure to do this before the important conversation or meeting where you most need it.

Honoring an intention:

  • When you’ve finished the day, take a few minutes to, again, find a quiet place. Spend a few moments reflecting on how you did with your intention.
  • Ask:
    • How attentive was I to my intention? Did I continue to remind myself of it? Or did I not revisit my intention again until this moment?
    • Was I able to act in accordance with my intention? If not, which moments or situations caused me to stray from my intention?
  • Once you’ve identified how you did and how you may have been disrupted from following your intention, you can watch out for those triggering moments next time you wish to focus on this intention.
  • Finally, take a moment to thank yourself for trying your best, and continue with your day.

Using intentions to guide your behavior and effectiveness is a lifelong practice, as useful outside of work as in professional situations.  Setting intentions can be especially useful when you know that you could be easily triggered or feel stressed.  Learning to set intentions is a first step towards more mindful leadership, better relationships with others, and more skillful self-management in a wide range of settings and situations.

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