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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Intention: A Powerful First Step—But Only the First Step

  Dr. Charles P. Mitchel
  Dr. Charles P. Mitchel

Most people have developed intentions for what they want to do with their lives to improve their existence. Often defined as goals, intentions may include learning a new skill, quitting smoking, eating less, or exercising more. Other personal goals may include being a better spouse, parent, or friend. Professionally, educators may intend to return to school for an advanced degree, apply for a promotion, raise student achievement scores, or expend more effort at work. People attempt at many times throughout their lives to reinvent themselves through intentions. In fact, psychologist Richard Wiseman tracked 700 people as they attempted to stick to their intentions—and found that only 12% did so. Why are these types of intentions so hard to fulfill?

My experience has taught me that the why of my intentions must transcend the Self; I must connect my intention to a source far greater than myself. I must redefine intention from simple goals to a higher purpose or deeper thought. Case in point: I was appointed as assistant principal at Franklin School in Newark, New Jersey, with 1,314 students in a school built for 800. After only a few months, I received a call from the principal on a Friday evening, demanding that I return to the school because it was on fire. When I arrived, I saw firefighters breaking through second-floor windows; flames and smoke spewed everywhere. Although quickly extinguished, the fire damaged several rooms. Many worried parents expressed concern about the coming Monday. Consequently, the principal and I met at his home on Sunday to discuss the future of Franklin School. Reminiscing about his long career as an educator, he reached into his desk drawer, retrieved his set of keys, and said, “I’m not going back!” His decision resulted in my becoming Franklin’s principal.

My initial thoughts were all about myself: I will make more money; I will feel successful; I will be in charge. I quickly realized that, though these thoughts were very real, they had little capacity to provide the energy, commitment, and will that I needed to transform a low-performing urban school. Missing was what Michael Fullan has called moral purpose—acting with the intention to make a difference in the lives of the students and staff I served. Being proud of one’s accomplishments is certainly valid, Fullan points out, but much more enters the scenario.

Intentions must connect to the powerful energy field of the Universe—The Source. Once my intentions shifted from my ego to my spiritual Self, I was able to think about how I could serve and make a real difference. I linked to what Carlos Castaneda, in The Active Side of Infinity, called an “immeasurable and indiscernible force” in the Universe. He suggested that intention is not something a person does; rather, it is a force that exists in the Universe as an invisible field of energy. I learned very quickly that I would need every ounce of divine universal energy if I were going to change things at Franklin School.

Basically, Franklin was a stereotypical failing urban school: high absenteeism among teachers and students, severe overcrowding, low test scores, low teacher morale, high poverty, and an antiquated school building. Fast forward a decade. The New York Times rated Franklin as one of the 10 best urban schools. In a national documentary, CBS called Franklin “a School of Hope,” and CNN featured me as an outstanding school leader.

Humbled, I have learned about the moral purpose that Fullan has labeled “motivational pluralism.” While the motivation of promotion was acceptable, my intentions had to be anchored outside myself, for the real power of an intention is in making a difference in the lives of others. I became less concerned about being successful and more focused on being significant. I was less judgmental and more forgiving. My mantra changed from “What can I get?” to “How can I serve?” My uncompromising belief became this: I was making a difference by ensuring that all students at Franklin touched the outer limits of their potential. I didn’t need to be the best in the world, but I wanted to be the best for my world of 1,300-plus young souls!

Spiritually, intention requires me to connect to The Source. Working in schools does, in fact, have a spiritual dimension. Cornel West has referred to the work of educators as more a calling and a mission than a job; similarly, Deepak Chopra has called our work soul craft. When my intention is imbued with Spirit, when I connect to my Source, I am endowed with copious energy and an unwavering commitment to a cause, no matter how difficult. Although spirit and source may differ in meaning and interpretation, I knew that when I faced my challenges at Franklin School—and beyond—with love and trust rather than fear and doubt, miracles happened.

In The Spiritual Dimension of Leadership, Paul Houston and Stephen Sokolow contend that everyone is connected to The Source at all times. However, The Source can be blocked by powerful, spiritually restricting, energy-sapping thoughts. Bruce Schneider, in Energy Leadership, offers four major energy-blocking thoughts: 1) limiting beliefs, 2) assumptions, 3) interpretations, and 4) the inner critic.

Limiting beliefs are long-held negative statements, such as “poor children can’t learn” or “girls can’t do math.” These are the can’ts that perpetuate bad practices in education.

Assumptions include self-fulfilling prophecies: If something happened before, it will, of necessity, happen again. This leads to such beliefs as: “All the principals I’ve had have been top-down, ‘my way or the highway’ leaders. This one will be no different.”

Interpretations also block positive energy. A situation often has more than one interpretation. For example, a teacher brought a student to my office. The child was not permitted to go on a field trip because he was “too lazy to do his homework all week.” The reality was that the boy’s mother was in the hospital, his father worked nights, and he had responsibility for four younger siblings that week. I learned the importance of seeking the truth and responding to each situation through its intention.

The most powerful and pernicious energy blocker is the inner critic. Everyone has one. The inner critic reminds people that they are fat, ugly, stupid, useless, or worthless—never good enough. As one pastor said, however, “God don’t make no junk!” The inner critic thrives on people’s fears. I have learned to combat the inner critic by telling it: “You can go now. Your message is wrong. I am a competent, caring, creative leader. Go away. I have important work to do!”

Through my experiences as a professional educator-leader, I have learned to trust my intentions, connect them to a higher purpose, and avoid thoughts that sap my energy. My intentions are not merely goals; they are the deeper thoughts and values that guide my present and my future. I do, indeed, have important work to do!

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