“A strong intention,” the Sufi mystic Rumi said, “can make ‘two oceans wide’ be the size of a blanket, or ‘seven hundred years’ the time it takes to walk to someone you love.”
People will disagree forever about the relative importance of vision, emotional intelligence or communication skills for leaders. But it’s hard to argue against the idea that a strong intention is what allows leaders to be effective. To get things done.
This effectiveness is a morally neutral thing: A malicious leader with a clear intent can be frighteningly effective. Intention magnifies intensity and breeds consistency. The world is constantly distracting us, nudging us to give up what we’re doing and begging that we do something else. Without it, the world wins, and our vague goals and dreams dissipate.
Some teachers ask students at the outset of a class to set an intention for the session. That’s not just a nice ritual, it’s the secret to improvement.
And yet so many good people lack intention. To put it another way, the well-intentioned often aren’t strongly intentioned, or they have contradicting intentions.
Various saints, teachers and philosophers have noted through the ages that kind-hearted people often lack the shrewdness or moxie of the bad guys. It’s as if the bad guys are are, well, hell-bent on their agendas, while the nicer people are described as “half-baked bread” or “lukewarm water.” As William Butler Yeats phrased it in The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Rumi spoke of half-heartedness in a poem, “New Moon, Hilal” (from which the earlier quote comes): A king asks a young guest, “How old are you?” The guest replies, “Eighteen. Well seventeen. Sixteen. Actually, uh, fifteen.” The king, amused by the boy’s timid backpedaling from his initial boast, mocks him: ‘Keep going! You’ll end up in your mother’s womb.”
Rumi also told the story of a man who went to borrow a horse: “Take the gray,” the stable-keeper says.
“No, not that one,” the man responds.
“It goes in reverse. It backs up.”
“Then turn its tail toward your home.”
Problem solved … if there’s a strong intention. But if we don’t have one, we’ll inevitably blame our failures on how the stable-keeper didn’t have the right horse or how we didn’t have the right saddle or umpteen other excuses.
As mystic, Rumi’s own intention was the pursuit of transcendence. And he noted that many others seemed on the surface to seek it, but were willing to stop short. He described how “True seekers keep riding straight through, whereas big, lazy, self-worshiping geese unload their pack animals in a farmyard and say, ‘This is far enough.'”
Elsewhere, he wrote, “Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty. You set out to find God, but then you keep stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses.”
A Clear Trumpet Call
One of the best, and most under-appreciated, leadership books of our times is Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership by historian Garry Wills. (The title is derived from a line by Paul in I Corinthians, “For if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?”)
True leaders, Wills suggested, sounded a confident trumpet, capable of mobilizing themselves and others for the battle at hand. Such a person’s statements show determination, not hesitation; conviction, not doubt.
A leader certainly doesn’t need to be riddled with guilt for lacking a pure, strong intent. But it does help if she can identify the reason that her intention is diluted, or if it’s dissipated on contradicting priorities. This is an invaluable clarifying exercise.
Half-heartedness and internal resistance creep into every plan. If you’ve taken a class in improvisation, you know that a foundation of improv is to hear an idea and response, “Yes, and …” in order to advance a scene as creatively and dynamically as possible. But in the workplace and in much of life, our default mode is often, “Yes, but …”
A strong intention can overcome that. It becomes a reliable true north on one’s internal compass.
“Leaders remind people what is important,” leadership expert Warren Bennis said. But first they have to remind themselves, through carefully managed intentions.