Leadership Basics 1: What is Intentional Leadership?

“Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less. When you become a student of leaders, as I am, you recognize people’s level of influence in everyday situations all around you.”  -John Maxwell

This well-known quote on leadership has become one of the most trusted and referenced definition of leadership.  While I don’t necessarily disagree with Maxwell’s observation, I think it lacks the specificity needed to develop a personal philosophy of leadership, or to design a leadership training program for others.  In my work with P&PG clients, I aim to provide a more prescriptive leadership model to our clients. If I only teach that “leadership is influence”, I’m not prepared to answer the next logical questions:

  • How do I become intentional in my influence?
  • How do I influence in a positive way instead of in a harmful direction?
  • Am I influencing even when I’m not trying to lead?”


In this series of posts I want to provide some answers to those questions so that you’re equipped to move beyond this basic idea of leadership, and can bring intionality to your leadership journey and clarity to decisions on how to approach shaping the leadership journeys of those in your organization, community, and home.

The Achilles’ heel of Maxwell’s “leadership is influence” statement is a way of viewing the world and organizations called systems thinking.  I won’t go into depth on systems thinking in this post, but you can find a great explanation in Peter Senge’s The 5th Disciple, which is a worthwhile read for every organizational leader.  Systems thinking teaches that, almost without exception, we influence everyone we come into contact with; either directly or indirectly.  We’re social creatures in complex webs of relationships, and we just can’t help spreading our influence around. Mutual influence is part of the human condition.

For example, if I enter a room while looking at my phone, look no one in the eye, and stand in the corner I will influence the atmosphere of the room and the experience of everyone else in the room.  People will shift where they’re standing to acknowledge me, even without verbal communication, and will eventually look to me for some sign of my emotional and physical status. Here’s a less direct example: Everything we buy, what we eat, and the media we consume all indirectly influence many other people every day, often on different continents!  Let’s call these examples Unintentional Leadership. If we stop with Maxwell’s definition, we’re all leaders every day whether we know it or not because we’re always influencing the systems of which we’re a part.

The type of leadership we’re after is different, and I call it Intentional Leadership.  In its most simple form, Intentional Leadership consists of three steps*. The first is to notice.  On a small scale, this could be as simple as noticing the emotional atmosphere when we enter a room.  Are people engaged in conversation? Is it a large group conversation? Are people chatting in small groups?  Is everyone on their phones? On a larger scale, noticing could be observing that people are being served differently in a restaurant because of their ethnicity, social class, or gender.  You could notice that someone is singled out and bullied face to face or on social media. Noticing could be seeing that there are people with authority and resources who could correct a problem within your organization if someone brought them a clear plan and explained how they could help.  During most of our childhoods we don’t notice how the systems of groups, culture, and society shape the identities and roles of those within organizations, even giving power to some people and withholding power from others. Noticing is a skill to be developed. Some people arrive in adulthood without learning to notice.

The second step is to choose.  Choosing is making a value judgement; deciding that there is a wrong that should be addressed.  Whether you’re aware of them or not, your values determine what wrongs you notice and which ones you choose as high priorities.  For example, one of our clients has the core values of “flexibility” and “competitive spirit”. For years as a gritty young organization people worked late nights to meet deadlines and then had the freedom to come in late the next day.  As the company scaled up and grew into multiple locations the CEO noticed that some new employees seemed to be taking advantage of the culture of flexibility without contributing to sustaining their remarkably competitive workplace. He was faced with making a choice about how to respond in a way that aligned with his values and the vision for the company.  Since he had identified his values he had the power to choose with intention. You gain the same power when you know your values and consciously apply them to the issues that you notice. You think about what would be most helpful in realizing your ideals, and choose the specifics of what you will say or do.

The third step is to act.  While it is hard to notice things we’ve been blind to for most of our lives, and choosing wisely takes practice and can be intimidating and confusing, Acting can be the biggest hurdle.  Unfortunately, noticing and choosing are of little worth without an act of leadership. At P&PG we work with our clients to give emerging, high potential, and executive leaders practice acting to solve real organizational issues.  Practice is the only way to truly gain the courage and confidence to become consistently intentional leaders.

Notice, choose, act is a simple but powerful model for reframing our definition of leadership to be change-oriented and actionable.  But even this view of intentional leadership leaves many questions unanswered:

  • What values drive your leadership choices?
  • Are your current values helping you become an effective leader?  If not, how do you change them?
  • What communication, strategic, and operational skills help a leader be effective change-makers when they act to make their leadership choices reality?
  • How do we continue to wake up to the people and systems around so that we notice more organizational and interpersonal issues that are ripe for change?


These may sound like overwhelming questions, but it’s surprisingly simple to make progress.  First, take some time to reflect and notice where you are in your current leadership journey.  Take some notes. Ask others for their perspective. Second, decide if your want to choose to step further along the path with intentionality.  Third, choose an act every day that will propel you further along your leadership path. Simple. Not easy. Keeping up the energy to maintain intentionality in your leadership journey can be difficult.  Reach out to others for help. The desire to grow in your leadership is a great issue to bring to a mentor or trusted leader in your company. And don’t forget about us. Developing leaders is a core passion of P&PG.  Let us know if we can help!

In my next post we’ll continue to build upon the Notice, Choose, Act model by discussing how to design leadership experiences and training to help build a personal or organizational leadership culture.

*The ”Notice, Choose, Act” change model comes from Challenge Day.

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