We can all fondly remember what it was like in elementary school to wait impatiently for the bell to ring signaling recess. From the moment it sounded, we would barrel out of the classroom and race to the playground, our puerile spirit invigorated. For me, it was all about the monkey bars.

Something was exciting—even a bit a nerve-wracking—about taking that first big reach to grab hold of the bar. As you hang, you realize that to go anywhere you must let go with one hand and reach forward. With each move, you are temporarily suspended between two rungs. The only way to consistently move forward is to let go with the hand holding you back.

Becoming an intentional leader is not unlike playing on the monkey bars. It requires you to let go of the rung that defines who you are today and potentially holds you back from who you are meant to be. If you summon the strength and courage to let go and reach forward, you create the momentum for personal and professional growth.

You have created an opportunity to become an intentional leader.

A Decision to Lead

Most of us go through life and attribute leadership to what’s on our business card, our title and position. But, in reality, leadership permeates every aspect of our lives, whether at home or in the business world.

During the early part of my career, I had many opportunities to be a leader and, for the most part, I rose to the occasion. But, I never thought of myself as a leader and was never intentional about my actions. I simply did my job.

I had an awakening, like many, on September 11, 2001. I remember vividly watching two planes fly into the World Trade Center in slow motion. But, it was September 12 at 7:53 am that affected me perhaps even more, specifically as a leader.

Standing in front of 53 of my employees, all eyes were on me to provide answers I simply didn’t have. My team needed comfort, and they needed inspiration. At that moment, I realized leadership is not something you accidentally stumble upon; rather, it’s a choice, and it requires intention. To be a GREAT leader, you must be intentional about what you do.

Standing there, I committed to my journey of becoming a stronger, better, more effective leader. I knew I was good, but I recognized I was not as great as I wanted to be.

So, I started my leadership voyage. In the next year I read over 100 personal development books, attended seminars and webinars and talked to others in similar roles. In 2003, I received a certification to deliver the content of the Leadership Challenge, a global campaign to liberate the leader in everyone. It became my mission to help others see through the fog and become more purposeful. I started speaking at leadership conferences, covering everything from how to build healthy corporate cultures to how to facilitate strengths-based learning in the business world. I began writing… a lot. It’s amazing how much there is to say about intentional leadership!

Though there is a long list of characteristics and belief systems when it comes to intentional leadership, I believe there are five important cornerstones:

  1. Set and Share the Vision: Most organizations and leaders have an idea of where they want to go but they under-communicate their intended vision. Vision, if not well articulated, breeds uncertainty, stress, frustration and concern among employees. An organization without vision, or clear vision, is like trying to drive in a dense fog; everything slows down. Intentional leaders recognize the value in not just setting vision, but asking for the contributions of others in shaping and challenging the vision. This allows them to build a strong coalition, one that is unified around the notion of affecting change.
  2. Empower Your Team: Nothing hurts a leader’s ability to lead faster than taking employees’ power away from them. You are essentially taking the most important asset in your organization, your people, and having them run on auto pilot. There is no quicker way to stifle innovation. Intentional leaders invest in people, making them more knowledgeable and giving them the tools and confidence to make better decisions. As a leader, you must possess a fundamental belief in people. You need to believe that they are capable and that they can succeed. And you must empower them to do so.
  3. Promote Collaboration: Strong leaders facilitate open, safe environments for lively, healthy collaboration. In fact, they welcome creative dissonance as points of disagreement can lead to an even better solution! Intentional leaders lean into each other’s ideas, embrace the art of discussion and debate and don’t “rule with hierarchy.”
  4. Remain Humble: The job of a leader is to remove personal ego to become humble. When you deal with egos, it’s an individual trait or characteristic; it’s not organizational. As leaders, we must not only spot our tendencies toward big egos ourselves, but we also have to encourage those around us to never lose sight of the corporate mission and our work toward a healthy, strong corporate culture.
  5. Praise Often: Many business books will tell you to subscribe to the practice of “praise publicly, criticize privately,” and those authors are right! But as leaders, we must put extra attention on praising often, especially when the praise is well deserved. I’ve long believed that if you can deliver truly meaningful praise, you can never give too much of it. Embrace an attitude of gratitude. Start small and offer praise yourself. Look at the work of others and find a way to offer meaningful, positive feedback. Then encourage others around you to do the same.

As you may know, I have moved on from playing on the monkey bars to climbing mountains but the overarching lesson still remains. Life and leadership is about letting go and taking that next step.

I would like to leave you with a final thought from Mark Udall, who was a United States Senator and an avid mountain climber.

“You don’t climb mountains without a team, you don’t climb mountains without being fit, you don’t climb mountains without being prepared and you don’t climb mountains without balancing the risks and rewards. And you never climb a mountain on accident—it has to be intentional.”