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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Not All Intention is Created Equal

  Dr. Paul. D. Houston
  Dr. Paul D. Houston
Founding Partner

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was fond of saying that he liked to hit people with bad intention. Given his reputation and the number of times he knocked out other fighters, you could conclude that he was pretty successful at fulfilling his intentions. In fact, when he fought Evander Holyfield he went beyond hitting and bit off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear. Really bad intention! Tyson also tended to live his life outside the ring with some pretty bad intentions. His conviction for rape and the accusations of his ex-wife regarding physical abuse would be enough to substantiate his claim of being a man with bad intentions.

Interestingly enough, of late Tyson appears to have mellowed and become more spiritual, which is a great advertisement for seeking a more spiritual base in your life. If Mike Tyson can mellow, after all, why can’t we? People like the Tyson of old, who are filled with rage or anger, often act out of bad intention. We have witnessed our elected representatives in Washington doing great damage to our country because they have the wrong intentions. They seem to act out of greed, hubris, and hatred for others. They are looking out for themselves and focused on getting the upper hand. I think there’s an easy way to determine if someone is acting out of a bad intention. What is the result of their actions? Can anything that has a bad result come from anything other than a bad intention?

I, on the other hand, am full of good intentions. Like most of us, I like to think of myself as being pure as the driven snow. I intend to be kinder to others. I intend to become healthier, to get more exercise, to eat better, to get more sleep, to watch less mindless entertainment, and on and on. I am just chock-full of great intentions. Unfortunately, something seems to happen between my intentions and my results. I still find myself not always treating others as I would like to be treated. I still eat junk food and fill my mind with junk entertainment. I still would rather sit around than run around. Something happens between my good intentions and my results. It is called a lack of action.

My father, who was a minister, used to preach on the idea that we have to make the word become flesh. In other words, it is not enough simply to think good thoughts or intend good things. We must act on them. He would preach to the congregation that reading the Bible and going to church are not enough if your actions don’t mirror the teachings you have received.

Moreover, your intentions should be based on good reasons. Do people diet and exercise merely to look better or actually to be healthier? Health should trump looks, but it doesn’t always. Steve and I have a new book coming out in a few weeks. (Warning: Shameless plug to follow!) The title is The Wise Leader: Doing the Right Things for the Right Reasons. Our work has led us to understand that it’s not good enough to just do the right things. Our actions must be done for the right reasons. That lies at the heart of using intention for good.

Here’s an example for any educators who might be reading this article. Any good educator has the intention of helping their students achieve more. Most of us even go beyond that good intention to act on it by bringing in new programs, working with teachers to improve their skills, and setting high standards. But the question remains: Why are we doing this? Are we doing it so that students have a better chance to follow their dreams and to make use of their potential so they can live more successful lives and serve the world? Or are we doing it so that we can appear to be better leaders in order to get a new contract extension or promotion and gain a higher salary? On the surface the results might seem to be the same, but our actual intention has the power to create very different realities. It’s no wonder that so many schools have become soulless, toxic places. Yes, everyone is working very hard to help raise student achievement, but the reasons they are trying to raise student achievement are often external to the child and more about adult agendas.

Lately we have seen in education that foundations, the government, and the business community are promoting harder tests for children and merit pay for teachers. Let me ask any self-respecting educator what will be the result of programs that are external to the child and that reward the staff for doing something that ought to be inherent in the work they really do for children.

The same can also be said for other aspects of our lives. We see business leaders who resist providing health care for their employees or raising the minimum wage so that they can squeeze more profit out of their business. The Bible was pretty clear in reminding us that “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Numerous religions and spiritual practices speak to the need for better intentions and actions from each of us. Steve and I have often reflected that the way to test your intention is to ask yourself if you are doing something for yourself or others.

Intention is having an idea, then a plan, and then a willingness to act on that plan and an understanding of its impact on others. It is also knowing why we want to carry our plan forward. Without understanding the “why” we could easily end up biting off someone’s ear just to improve our chance of winning the fight. That would be a really bad outcome, from a really bad intention.

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