Leveraging the Power of Intention

Leveraging the Power of Intention

Boundless Leadership

An Excerpt from Boundless Leadership

Conflicting intentions often lie at the root of our most ill-advised efforts. For instance, if someone criticizes us, we often feel the need to correct them. We may feel that we’re being helpful by setting the record straight, but our critic feels we’re being defensive and are not listening or taking responsibility. If we examine our intentions in a situation like this, we might notice that underlying our conscious intention to correct an error there is a deeper, unconscious intention to punish our critic for embarrassing, diminishing, or challenging us. When conflicting intentions motivate our actions and reactions, they create a dissonance that detracts from our effectiveness. Metaphorically, it’s as if we’re facing in one direction while our bodies are moving in another. In other words, intention has its own physics: if you try to satisfy conflicting needs simultaneously, then like an object impacted by a variety of forces, the result of your actions will be diminished to the degree that your intentions are scattering rather than aligning your aim. 

On the other hand, when we bring clarity to the workings of our minds, we are able to refine our complex set of intentions and can consciously choose the intention that best aligns with our individual and organizational interest. When we can choose our lead intention and redirect our conflicting intentions accordingly, the impact and benefit of our decisions and actions are increased. 

There’s a second reason it’s important to clarify our intentions: they launch or initiate our actions. If our intention at the beginning of an action is a few degrees off, by the time the action is completed we’re going to be exponentially further from where we intended to be. If you’re aware of your intentions and make a small adjustment in the beginning, then your completed action will be more in line with your desired outcome. 

For example, when our meditation practice has become a more stabilized and organic process, we are able to be still and deepen awareness. So much so that we might notice a tickle in our throat and then focus on and calm that tickle before it becomes an involuntary cough. Think of noticing that tickle as the first intention of an action; if you could leverage your awareness at that point, you could change the trajectory and avoid an outcome before it became inevitable. 


To better understand the process of clarifying our intentions, you can examine where your current level of clarity falls in the chain of awareness, which is composed of the following five successive steps: 

  1. Stimulus: A mosquito lands on your arm.
  2. Recognition: You notice the mosquito on your arm.
  3. Intention: You want to stop the mosquito from biting you.
  4. Consideration: Kill it? Flick it? Spray it? Ignore it?
  5. Action: Take action based on your choice. 

The chain of awareness usually plays out in a moment, but each step occurs sequentially. Consider what this process feels like depending on where you direct your awareness in the chain. What if you had no awareness until after you took action at the fifth step? We’ve all experienced this: I cant believe I said that. I cant believe I did that. When your awareness is at the end of the chain, you’re in a trance—not only are you not aware, you’re not even awake. 

What if your awareness occurs directly before taking the action, between steps 4 and 5 in the chain? This is reactivity, not intentional action. You’re aware of the action before you take it, but you did not choose the action, you just did it. 

However, if awareness happens before consideration (step 4), you’re being mindful: I have options. I could be aggressive or conciliatory. I have many things I can do before I take action. That’s a better place to be. 

What is even better is having awareness as the intention arises, during step 3, before your field of consideration is narrowed. You decide who you want to be in the next moment, what part of yourself you want to show up. That is consciously setting an intention. And if you’re aware at that level, you can direct your action and change the outcome of an event exponentially. That’s having complete mindful awareness. 

You might be able to have awareness even at the moment the stimulus occurs before step 2. In that case, we refer to your level of awareness as pure presence. A mosquito landed on your arm and you’re present, aware of the sensation of a bug about to bite. No problem. Im here, Im present.

Finally, sometimes the depth and stability of our awareness are such that it seems we anticipate what’s coming; we have an awareness that’s present even before the stimulus occurs—that’s being prescient. All of us have experienced every stage on the chain of awareness from trance to prescience.

Once you know that the further down the chain you place your awareness the more limited your options are, you can decide from which leverage point you want to manage the outcome of your actions. Where do you want your awareness to be as a leader of yourself and others? Which “you” do you want to have show up when you bring full clarity and self-awareness into play? 

Clarify Intentions

List all the intentions you have for a particular decision, meeting, or course of action. The first few are usually accessible and close to the surface:

I want to have this meeting because . . . 

I want the result of this decision to be . . .

I want the outcome of this conversation to be . . .

Then you want to look below the surface and ask yourself the following: 

What are some of my partially hidden intentions? 

What are the intentions arising from my attitudes and views?

What intentions might be based on the implicit assumptions I make about me and others? 

If I were to be completely honest, eschewing my current mood or my history with this group or individual, what other intentions do I have? 

Add your answers to the list. It is critical to resist any shame that may come up about your more personal or primal intentions like wanting to get credit for your work, highlighting a colleague’s shortcomings, or covering up a mistake. Then, go deeper and ask these questions:

What are the intentions shaped by my conditioning—my early emotional experience or my adult social and cultural conditioning? 

Which of my core beliefs and needs are informing my intentions?

Is there a historical need emerging in this situation?

Beliefs such as our need for approval, safety, and acknowledgement from the people we’re interacting with, supporting, or supported by as well as those unmet needs from our primary caregivers, will likely foster our subconscious intentions to satisfy those needs through the current situation.

For example, you may have intentions for a meeting with your manager that actually reflect your need for approval from your father. Or there may be an unconscious intention that relates to an implicit racial or gender bias—you feel a need to please or appease a person of different race or gender. When we clarify our intentions, we can see how things from our personal life are connected with and seep into our work. That is why you want to push and identify the intentions that arise, even if they don’t seem to make sense. Again, there’s no need for shame or judgment, so list as many intentions as you can and go as deep as you can. Remember, whether you list them or not, those intentions are affecting your impact, so you’ll benefit from bringing them to your awareness and addressing them appropriately. 

By doing this you can have a better idea of how you want to work with your intentions. It’s a layered process: 

  1. Intentions that are on the surface: the ones we recognize and easily acknowledge
  2. Intentions that are just below the surface: attitudes and assumptions that affect our thinking
  3. Intentions that are deep, even buried: beliefs and worldviews that were conditioned during childhood

When it comes to the last two types of intentions, it’s vital to ask what parts of your past may be skewing your consideration of the present situation. By analyzing your intentions, you’ll foster clarity of what is almost always a more complicated set of needs than you might expect. 

To help you access these three levels of intentions, you can group them into intentions you might have for the following:

  1. Yourself
  2. Others: employer, family, or team
  3. The whole: business, community, or world

Although a more detailed exploration of your intentions will serve you, we’ve observed while working with our clients over the years that almost all intentions fall into two categories: 

  1. Those designed to protect you and keep you safe
  2. Those that help you grow and expand

We all have both sets. If you’re brutally honest and identify your full list of intentions from both perspectives, you’ll be better able to clarify the emotional forces resulting from your competing intentions. 


Boundless Leadership

$26.95 - Hardcover

By: Elazar Aslan & Joe Loizzo

Joe LoizzoJoe Loizzo, MD, PhD, is a psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and meditation scholar-teacher who integrates neuroscience with contemplative practice to help people cultivate personal well-being, interpersonal compassion, and transformational leadership. Assistant professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College and founder of the educational non-profit Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science, his other books include Sustainable Happiness and Advances in Contemplative Psychotherapy.


Elazar AslanElazar Aslan, MBA, PCC is an executive advisor, speaker, entrepreneur, and CEO of Caterfly Solutions. After a successful career as a business executive, he became a professional coach over a decade ago, bringing his meditative practice and leadership principles to corporations including Chase, D&B, MasterCard, American Express, and ADP, as well as hyper-growth start-ups.

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