Purpose is necessary for success but alone it does not make leaders. For great leadership, you need to focus on your intentionality.
Lets admit it: we have all met people driven by a great purpose (changing the world, disrupting whole industries, saving the environment etc)…. that were also horrible people to work with!
I particularly remember a CEO whom I personally knew, whose vision was captivating, his commitment was unparalleled and his business behaviour was convincing. There was only one problem: in most interactions, internally and externally, he made people feel uncomfortable by being confrontational, ego-centric and arrogant. No one really questioned his extreme sense of purpose. His employees believed in his passion and abilities to make his vision come true… but they just didn’t want to be around him. And here is the thing: most of his team members routinely and quietly unperformed. Or to put it on other words, they rarely gave their maximum at work.
Purpose is a powerful driver, no doubt about that. From Simon Sinek’s famous “Start with Why” TED speech and book to Daniel Pink’s also famous Drive book and corresponding TED speech on human motivation, purpose has now been cemented as THE basic ingredient for success.
This is true. Purpose IS the main fuel for achieving success. Without purpose you will lack in passion, vision and commitment. But in order to become a leader, your deep sense of purpose needs to be accompanied by an equally deep sense of intentionality.
Every single interaction you have with people, inside or outside your company, is marked by your intentions radiating outwards from you. Those intentions are picked up by others, consciously but mainly unconsciously, and determine their behaviour towards you. And this happens every single second!
Intentionality is what makes us human. Since living in caves, we have to instantly decode intentions of other people in order to activate fast one of our two basic motivational systems, approach or avoidance. Does the person in front of me has my well-being in her/his intention? Or is the situation threatening to me and I need to “fight or flight”?
The first challenge of intentionality is that it is transmitted and received mainly unconsciously and involuntarily. It is less what you say but more how you say it and how your behaviour confirms it. The second challenge is that it is created momentarily. Every seconds counts. A specific intention subtly communicated in one moment can be very different from another a second later. Your intentions in a meeting on Monday on sales results might be different from your intentions in a meeting on Thursday on discussing restructuring of your department.
Your purpose remains the same, but your intentions change depending on who you meet, why you meet them, when you meet them and even where you meet them! And they know.
Below is a table I put together with the main differences between purpose and intentionality in the leadership context:
As species, we have developed vast neural networks to decode and transmit intentionality in our everyday lives. Cognitive, emotional and behavioural empathy systems in our brains are there to help us understand and connect with people in order to collectively achieve our common goals. We do this better than any other species on the planet. Social Cognition models also suggest that our brains instantly measure people based on universal criteria such as warmth and competence. Our propensity to anticipate people’s actions towards us by, intuitively or analytically, understanding their intentions is hardwired in our brains. The realisation that it affects leadership dearly is not a revolution. It is an observation.
Modern leaders should always consider their own intentions in all their interactions with employees and partners. Do they send the right message to the right person? They should also make sure they work on improving their receiving end. Do they decode and respond appropriately to the intentionality messages of others? Do they understand what others want from them in different meetings and situations?
Improving your intentionality skills is not easy. But it is necessary. And it can be done. You can improve both on the transmitting and receiving ends if you first acknowledge the fact that people shape their behaviours by moment-to-moment human interaction and not only by long-term visions and grandiose goals. We follow leaders not only because of their great ideas but mainly because they prove daily that they have the best intentions towards us, regardless the difficulty of the situation. Even when they take tough decisions, they openly portray that the well-being of those around is of high importance to them.
At an organisational level, the good news is that now we have technologies to help us decode intentionality signals at the workplace and in the marketplace. Neuro and bio feedback tools such as emotional facial recognition, emotional voice analysis, skin conductance, electroencephalogram, eye-tracking and others help companies decode customers’ intetionality when they are interacting with the brand. Such technologies are now used internally as well, from recruitment to assisting productivity boosts.
Using tech or just your own brain, intentionality is the key to people-oriented leadership. You want to become a great leader? Have great intentions every time you meet people and interact with them. They will know… and they will follow.
Dr Nikolaos Dimitriadis (PhD, MBA) is a Certified Neuromarketer and the author of the book “Neuroscience for Leaders: A Brain Adaptive Leadership Approach” (Kogan Page). He works as the Development Director at The University of Sheffield International Faculty, City College.