Leading with Intent

Academia has not done any better at developing these capabilities in leaders. Graduates of highly ranked MBA programs have shown only a 4 percent improvement in self awareness and self-management abilities and a 3 percent decrease in social awareness and relationship management skills from the time they began their programs.

Richard E. Boyatzis*, a prominent investigator of emotional intelligence for more than two decades, may have found the key to developing leaders with greater emotional and social competencies. Simply put, those in charge need to want to be leaders, he says. Self evident as that may sound, it is a crucial insight. Many people are pushed into leadership because of the expectations of others or they pursue leadership positions, despite strong reluctance, because of the allure of career advancement or social status.

Boyatzis’ formulations, enunciated in his “intentional change theory (ICT),” are based on the idea that change in any system, whether that system is a single individual or an organization, occurs gradually and on many levels. And, what he calls “specific intention” is required to orchestrate and sustain change in the system.

Intentional change, is achieved through a five-part process, says Boyatzis. First, an individual or group that seeks to change must envision a desirable and achievable future. Next, they must come to terms with their real selves and acknowledge the discrepancy between their real selves and the ideals they are trying to become. They next must develop a plan for how to reach their goals, experiment with new behavior and create a support network that encourages their new behavior. These steps may seem intuitively obvious, but, in fact, few change initiatives adhere to this approach.

Studies at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, where Boyatzis is a professor of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science, have shown that following these five steps leads to sustainable changes in habits, perceptions and mood. These changes in turn enhance individuals’ abilities to understand their own and others’ emotions. In other words, putting intentional change theory into practice can significantly develop emotional and social intelligence, or what Boyatzis refers to as “resonant leadership.”

Common Mistakes in Leadership Development

Leadership training programs and managers conducting annual reviews often make a crucial mistake, according to Boyatzis. They skip or give short shrift to the first step of ICT — defining a desirable, achievable goal. Instead, they jump directly to the second step — comparing the real to the ideal. Examining the gap between one’s aspirations and reality through a variety of feedback mechanisms, such as videotaped interactions, can provide strong motivation for change. However, research shows that if an individual is not given a sense that change is possible and if attention is focused on fixing his deficiencies rather than enhancing his strengths from the outset, he will become defensive and stressed and his performance will suffer.

Another weakness in many leadership development efforts is that they do not provide explicit permission to experiment and even to fail. A judgmental subtext often exists in organizations that will sabotage a nascent leader’s early efforts. Permission to let go of old habits and try new approaches can come from trusted consultants, coaches or peers. Most organizations do not do enough to make sure such a support network exists

Finally, most leadership programs fall short because they are one dimensional, focusing on individuals or on one level of an organization. ICT emphasizes the lattice-like nature of change. To take root and sustain itself, change at one level must be complemented by change at all levels. Change must be achieved at the individual level, in dyads, such as between bosses and subordinates, and at the team, group, organizational and community levels. Such holistic change is difficult and requires that leadership consultants and coaches facilitate the transmission of change at one level to other parts of the system.

As an example, Boyatzis cites a program in which a major pharmaceutical company employed ICT techniques to shorten product development times. The most striking aspect of the program was the intricacy of the communication, feedback and reinforcement structure that was created and how relentlessly team members were reminded of their purpose and the importance of their relationships with internal and external constituencies.

The example highlights Boyatzis’ key insight that although most organizations talk about the need to empower their leaders, few do what it takes to give their leaders a chance to succeed. Fostering leadership begins with firing up individual and group will with a vision of a desirable and attainable goal. It then requires devoting sustained attention and resources to creating an organization that is conducive to achieving that objective.

* Richard Boyatzis is a co-author, with Daniel Goleman and Annie McKee, of Primal Leadership (Harvard Business Publishing, 2002), with Annie McKee, of Resonant Leadership (Harvard Business Publishing, 2005) and, with Annie McKee and Frances Johnston, of Becoming a Resonant Leader (Harvard Business Publishing, 2008). Boyatzis’ most recent papers on intentional change are “Leadership Development from a Complexity Perspective,” Consulting Psychology Journal (2008) and “Intentional Change Theory from a Complexity Perspective,” Journal of Management Development 25 (2006): 607-23. For more information about the ideas in this article and the work of Richard Boyatzis, contact him at richard. boyatzis@case.edu.