Leaders with High Emotional Intelligence Don’t Set Goals. They Do This Instead.

How to reframe an ambition for achievement and instead focus on an experience.

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In the last few months, I’ve fallen into a conversation loop, somehow tripping into the same narrative with a number of folks, all of whom I would classify as emotionally intelligent leaders. The consensus overwhelmingly indicates their career trajectories – and even their capacities for happiness – changed the moment they reframed their approach to goal setting.

I’m willing to acknowledge that this is in large part a critical step in one’s maturity arc. But the secret is not so secret. And if you embrace these tactics now, you’ll have a better shot at long-term success, happiness and fond memories in a way some of us missed.

(Ahem. Me. I missed them.) 

Reframe your ambition for achievement.

First, let’s make something absolutely clear. “Ambition” is not a dirty word. I have ambition and I respect it in others. But a downside of ambition for the sake of achievement can be tunnel vision.

I spent years – many, many years – hyper-focused on my professional to-do list, ticking off a number of things well ahead of my time. Did that create a rich career experience? Of course. Did it leave me with Swiss cheese memory? Absolutely.

I have memory gaps for one simple reason: Myopia prevented me from recognizing many achievements as actual achievements because they didn’t show up in the way I thought they should.

(Yes, that is as bratty as it sounds.)

Set intentions for experiences, not goals. 

By the time I checked off my total career list, I didn’t know what was on the other side of it. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. It was the perfect opportunity to reverse engineer my own ambition by asking myself exactly what I wanted to experience, not what title I wanted or what company I wanted to work for. 

This required a major mind shift into, well, mindfulness. By improving my presence of mind, I was able to recognize when an experience I wanted showed up in a way I didn’t expect. 

For example, I defined the experience I wanted to have in service of my clients. Where my goals previously rested on industry relevance or the product, I shifted my intentions to the story and to the chemistry with the client contact. This wholly transformed my client base and made for an even healthier work experience for both my clients and myself.

I then dug deep to determine what impact I wanted to have by helping others improve their experience and outcomes at work. This mind shift away from a job title and instead to an outcome helped me avoid defaulting to the role I’ve played in PR for the better part of 20 years. It challenged me to parlay the skills that made me a great communicator into management consulting and emotional intelligence coaching – two roles I never saw coming.

Had I stayed married to my To Do list instead of my To Experience list, I would continue to be plagued with the same distracting, unproductive discontent I experienced for years. 

Leave room for magic.

It’s one thing to know exactly what you want, it’s another thing to pre-determine how you’re going to get it. (See also Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Yikes.) You can work the hardest at your thing, but if you don’t leave room for things to happen organically – if you micromanage your own success – you’ll miss out on the magic of the experience. 

Bottom line? 

When you set goals, you shut people out. When you set intentions, you allow others in. That human connection is the difference between achievement and experience. Opt for the latter!

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