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The Road to Hell Isn't Paved with Good Intentions, but Rather Bad Ones We're Mistaking for Good Ones

Years ago, when I was a shiny new leader, I had an employee I thought the world of. Let’s call her Lisa. Lisa was very bright, very funny, and excellent at her job. I loved having her on my team. Two or three years into her tenure, the leader of another department asked me if he could offer Lisa a management position on his team.

I said no.

Yup. No.

I denied someone I genuinely liked and respected a chance to grow in her career.

Why did I do such a shitty thing?

Well, in my mind, I had the best of intentions. I thought the new position wasn’t good enough for Lisa. In fact, my egoic self was borderline offended at the thought of someone of her quality (read: from MY high-quality team) going to what I thought of as an inferior job in an inferior department.

Not once did I consider what Lisa would want.

So confident was I in my good intentions, that a few months after the offer had been made, I told Lisa how I had saved her from an imprudent career move. And, I had the cluelessness to tell her this in the context of how much I valued her.

Lisa didn’t see it that way.


In fact, she took it as a terrible betrayal. And she was of course, right. It wasn’t long before she left my team for the other department anyway. Only this time instead of having a friend and ally in that department, I now had someone who at best, was suspicious of my intentions, and at worst, didn’t trust me at all.

Well done me!

How did I make such a bone-headed mistake all the while thinking I was making the right choice?

It comes down to intentions.

My desire to keep Lisa on my team wasn’t a bad intention, but it was a superficial one born of my desire to keep her safe on my team (fear) and of my desire for personal validation and to feel superior (ego).

And this is key.

As the Buddha said, “Our entire life arises on the tip of intention”.

Superficial intentions are based in fear, ego, and wanting. They cause us to prioritise our own personal comfort over the truth of what’s happening around us. When we do this, we are betraying ourselves and those around us. And because of this, they rob us of our true, authentic power.

Deep intentions on the other hand, arise from the core of who we are. They’re aligned with our values and purpose. Our deep intentions always prioritize the truth of who we are, even if it results in discomfort. And because of that, they are incredibly empowering.

Intentions drive what we think, say, and do. So, when we don’t take the time to examine them, we can quickly find ourselves on the wrong path.

Kyle wants to ensure that everyone on his team feels safe and happy. Because of this, he’s never fired anyone. Ever. The result is a number of poor performing employees dragging the rest of the team down. Competent team members become so frustrated they eventually seek employment elsewhere. The uncomfortable truth is Kyle is afraid of firing an employee.

Sharon believes that protecting her employees from the bad news of this year’s double digit revenue decline is protecting them and enabling them to do their best work. The problem is her sudden silence on business matters has created a noticeable void. Employees are making up their own stories about what’s going on at the company. The rumour mill has led to widespread disillusionment. The uncomfortable truth is Sandy’s ego doesn’t want to admit her current business strategies aren’t working.

Fresh of a large round of VC funding, Jerod believes that big stretch goals and the promise of big compensation for meeting them is the best way to excite and motivate his team. Unfortunately, his goals are delusional, with no clear path to reality leaving employees feeling helpless and hopeless. The uncomfortable truth is Jerod is terrified of disappointing his new investors.

The road to hell isn’t paved with good intentions, but rather bad ones we’re mistaking for good ones.

It begs the question: Why are we so bad at knowing the difference?

The answer is simple: Fear, ego and wanting.

What can we do about it?

The answer is again simple: Start with awareness.

First, discover your core values. You can learn more about that here.

Next, look back on the past week. List some decisions you made, both big and small. Now comes the hard part. Determine how many of those decisions were driven by fear and ego vs. the values that are core to who you are.

How to know the difference? Was there an element of denial, aggression, anxiety, or greed in your decision? Was there an element of reactivity? How about defensiveness? How about judgment of either yourself or others?

When you discover a superficial intention, sense the unmet need beneath it.

Are you wanting validation or to feel worthy? Are you wanting control? Are you wanting certainty, safety or security? Are you wanting connection or love? Are you wanting excitement, newness or challenge?

Sit with the need. And be kind to yourself.

Now return to your values. How can you make a new decision that is aligned with the core of who you are? And if that decision is uncomfortable, where will you find support?

From this place, you’ll be able to honor your deep intentions.

And you’ll be better for it.

Because the only thing that really matters is remembering what truly matters.


The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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