Effective leaders need more than good intentions

Just thinking about doing something won't get results, it's what you actually do that counts. Here's how not to fall into the action-intention gap.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 22 Mar 2016

On a leadership course some months ago, I was struck by this quote: ‘We judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions.’ While not all leadership quotes are created equal, this one rang true. It called to mind a client who mentored a younger colleague. For weeks she’d planned to arrange a mentoring meeting, but other priorities had crowded in. While my client had been thinking about the mentee, all that the mentee experienced was a communication void. My client was judging herself on her good intentions, while the junior colleague saw a mentor who didn’t get in touch. 

It’s true for others too. Take the manager who frequently ducked important decisions. Although he would explore the facts and reach a conclusion, this would rarely be translated to his team, as he always found a reason to seek a more senior manager’s view. In his eyes, he was a methodical decision maker. To his team, he was an indecisive leader who failed to give direction. He was shocked when he received their feedback. He’d seen events through the perspective of his own intentions, not through the lens of what he actually did.

How about you? Do you kid yourself about the times you’ve failed to deliver? Perhaps you had good reasons. Unfortunately, that’s not the part that others see. Instead, we need to judge ourselves on our actions, rather than from the sanctuary of our good intentions:

First, test your assumptions against the facts. Perhaps you consider yourself a strong team player, but you’ve missed the last four team meetings. Or maybe you know yourself to be conscientious, but a closer look shows you’ve let a few recent projects slip. Look for where you’re regularly creating justifications for a repeated failing.

Now view your actions from an external standpoint. Perhaps you’re always running late, yet have put this down to your busy schedule. How would an outsider see you? As someone who’s crazy-busy (your view), or as someone who can’t organise themselves to be on time (the view from outside)?

In areas where you know you might be deceiving yourself, keep a note of your intentions versus your actions. Did you file those last three reports on time, follow up with prospective clients, attend the majority of team meetings? If not, what might others conclude about your ability?

Be proactive about how you want to be seen. Do you want to be known as someone who makes time for employees? Allocate the time in your schedule. Want to be considered a thought leader? Then seek opportunities to communicate your views to others.  Just thinking about those things from the safety of your desk isn’t going to make it happen.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’m yet to meet the person whose actions match their intentions 100% of the time. But in trying to do so, you’re giving yourself a head start. Others can only admire your actions.

Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to rebecca@coaching-studio.co.uk or tweet @_coachingstudio

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