The Power of Written Positive Intentions


One of the most valuable tools I have in getting clarity about what I want to achieve, removing apprehension about moving forward, and achieving the results I want is writing a positive intention.

The goal of a positive intention is to move from fear to freedom. Writing an intention allows you to imagine an exceptional outcome and experience the positive emotions of achieving that outcome.

A written positive intention has very specific rules:

  • It is written in past tense (as if it has already happened).
  • It is written in all positive terms.
  • It should be hand-written, not typed, if possible.
  • It identifies the most exceptional outcome you can imagine.
  • It focuses on how you and others feel about the outcome and the impact you can have if you achieve your positive outcome.
  • It is always a draft. Modify it over time. Write several versions to identify when your intention is based of fear, which may mean it is self-focused or your ego is showing up.

I use intentions all the time at work. Before I go into a difficult meeting. When I am setting goals for the year or defining success for a project or initiative. An intention is can be used to communicate with your team or it can be used as a personal tool. When I can go into a meeting with a clear intention and my ego in check, I am more aware and calm and grounded and the results are amazing and I feel energized.

The most powerful experience I had using a positive intention is a very personal one. A couple of years ago, my oldest son was really depressed and I was worried and scared. Our family has a long history with mental illness including three generations of suicides and I have directly experienced the devastating effect when a family member commits suicide. I didn’t want that for my son.

I shared my deep fear with my executive coach and she encouraged me to write an intention about my son. A couple of months later, he came home for a visit and I was confronted directly with the extent of his illness and self-medication. It came to a head one day and as we sat down to talk, the atmosphere was sad, defeated and heavy. We were both crying until I shared my intention with him.

As I shared my intention describing how I could picture him at the end of a successful semester and our family skiing and snowboarding together, the energy in the room shifted and we both felt lighter and hopeful. He took me up on the offer to meet with my coach to learn how to move from fear to freedom and to develop his own intentions. The most amazing part of the story is that six months later, our family was gathered in Park City skiing and snowboarding, and my son had just completed a successful semester at college.

My intention had come true.

Of course, there are many details to the story that I have not shared. My son has worked hard with lots of ups and downs and I have not always been able to keep from worrying. We now have a shared language about intentions and fear to freedom that has been helpful. I talked to him the other day and he told me that he was doing better than ever, which makes me very happy and hopeful.

From Fear to Freedom

ballon launch
DSC03116, by littlemoresunshine, is licensed CC BY 2.0.

My most common fear is failing and looking bad to others. It goes across all parts of my life, from work to family to church to community. I have tried to manage and suppress these fears by being super competent and working really hard. For years, I over functioned as a manager, wife, and mother, which meant that I would fill any gaps that I saw, which devalued other’s contributions and left me exhausted. I have worked hard to change and know I have made significant progress. However, I was unaware how ingrained these thought patterns were in my life, until I started working to improve my skills through a coaching program I developed with Kim Knapp called “Fear to Freedom.”

As I became more curious about my reactions and emotions, I realized that many things each day were triggers for my fear. It could be someone not showing up for a meeting, which I interpreted as disrespectful. It could be my kids ignoring my text and phone calls, which left me worried about their safety or annoyed that they were ignoring me. It could be selecting whether I attended a meeting not based on the content, but whether it would be good politically to be seen there. The inputs were constant and each time I felt knots in my stomach, I knew I was draining my energy and diluting my focus.

The “Fear to Freedom” model has been helpful to me in disrupting my long held patterns. Kim Knapp developed the “Fear to Freedom” model when she was working as a turnaround consultant who would come in when a company was failing. She now works as an executive coach, and has been working within Medical School Information Services for many years.

So how do you get an entire organization to change when they know that if they don’t do something different, they will go out of business?  Kim focused on shifting everyone to a place of creativity and collaboration so they could do their best thinking.

When we start a new coaching cohort in our group, we use a simple exercise to describe the “Fear to Freedom” model.  We have completed five coaching cohorts and the responses have been similar in each group.

We start by asking, “What do you do when you are afraid?” or “What behaviors have you observed in others when they afraid?” The brainstormed list will include many of the following: avoid, procrastinate, blame, bully, push ideas, defend, or exert control.

The next question is “Think of a time at work when you loved what you were doing at work. What did you love about it?” These answers will probably include: engaged, focused, authentic, creative, fun, or amazing team.

We then talk about where the focus is when someone is fearful.  When someone is in fear, they are focused on themselves. For me, it is often about ego and looking good. When we are operating in fear, we are usually focused on losing something like a job, status, promotion, esteem, love, etc.

fearfreedommodelIn contrast, when someone is operating in freedom, they are focused on something other than themselves. Much has been written about being purpose driven, either as an individual or organization. Clear purpose brings clarity and energy that enables excellence. This is true for individuals as well as organizations.

The first step for me has been awareness. I use the scale from 1 to 10 to help me assess where I am, with 1 being completely in fear and 10 being in complete freedom. It was uncomfortable to let myself feel fear rather than suppressing it, and then ultimately dealing with deep sadness that comes with loss. The loss is giving up the idea that I can control what happens.

The hardest work we do in on ourselves. It takes courage to be willing to be curious and allow ourselves to question why we are afraid. Our emotions come from the stories that we tell ourselves. It is our interpretation of events, not the events themselves that cause most of our suffering. It takes practice to be mindful of where you are on the spectrum and to identify ways that you can move toward freedom.

I hope you find this model useful. It has become a tool for me to become more of the person that I want to be.

Building a Virtuous Organization

Hand reaching out

When I joined the U-M Medical School Information Services (MSIS),  I was excited about the opportunity to create an effective and service-oriented IT organization knowing that we would contribute to healing patients, training the next generation of physicians and enabling life-changing research.  I believe the  most important part of my job has been to create a culture of collaboration, innovation and learning.

We branded our culture as “One MSIS” and tried to create an environment where:

  • Every person is empowered and engaged;
  • We work in teams;
  • We learn from mistakes;
  • We celebrate success;
  • We embrace change;
  • Believe we can make a difference;
  • We are supportive of each other; and
  • Progressively evolve through “relentless incrementalism”

We have launched a number of initiatives over the last four years to create this culture in MSIS.  We invested in training, knocked down (literally and figuratively)  walls to bring teams together in open office workspaces, supported employee ideas through events like “Hack Days”, made our work visible across the University (and beyond), and brought in professional coaching.

The most transformational experiment for me  was the Fear to Freedom coaching program Kim Knapp, our executive coach, and I developed to help our leaders learn how to hold others accountable in a supportive way.  Through the program, I was mentored by Kim and she helped me see how many of my own actions were inconsistent with the culture that I was promoting.  It wasn’t just transformational for me.  Several participants have told me how valuable it was for them and it has changed the way we interact as a team across MSIS.

Over the course of several months, I met several amazing thought leaders that continued to challenge my thinking.  Steffani Webb shared the “Jayhawk Way” program that she created that has fundamentally changed the culture at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC).  Kim Cameron described his research on the benefits of being a virtuous organization, Jane Dutton talked about how to infuse positivity to accelerate change and create high quality connections.  Jim Loehr spoke about the need to manage energy and change our stories in order to excel and Billy Taylor demonstrated the power of storytelling.

Word Map of One MSIS Vision StatmentAfter these interactions, I took a long hard look at the “One MSIS” vision and created a word map of the “One MSIS” vision statement. It helped confirm in my mind that the vision itself was flawed because it was self-focused.  If we want to accelerate our culture change, we need to infuse positivity and virtuous behaviors throughout the organization, and focus on others rather than on ourselves.

In the last year, I have learned and grown more as a person and leader than I thought was possible.  I am fully committed to becoming a virtuous leader who practices what she preaches.   It has not been comfortable or easy, but it has been rewarding and energy infusing.  I have learned that the most difficult work I have to do is on myself and that it helps to surround myself with others who are also on the journey to being virtuous leaders.

I invite you to start your own journey to becoming a virtuous leader and join me as a fellow traveler.