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Book Summary: Intentional Leadership – The Big 8 Capabilities Setting Leaders Apart

In fast-moving, unpredictable times like ours, we need skilled leaders more than ever. In Intentional Leadership, Rose M. Patten explores how leadership evolves in difficult circumstances and pinpoints essential leadership abilities. She emphasizes that leadership skills do not automatically develop over time, but require self-awareness, feedback, intention, adjustment and practice.

Rose M. Patten, a prominent Canadian businesswoman and Chancellor of the University of Toronto, set out to explore how leadership evolves in difficult circumstances and to pinpoint essential leadership abilities. Her resulting framework, the “Big 8,” was the subject of 25 one-week sessions of discussion and debate in Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the BMO Executive Leadership Programs. Patten highlights common myths about the eight pivotal leadership capabilities she identifies and encourages leaders to make the most of self-awareness, feedback, intention, adaptability and good character.

Book Summary: Intentional Leadership - The Big 8 Capabilities Setting Leaders Apart


  • Critical challenges can make leaders stronger.
  • Three game changers affect leadership: Stakeholder demands, the workforce and changing strategies.
  • Four fallacies about leadership make adaptability and rapid change more difficult.
  • Time spent doing a job doesn’t improve a leader’s soft skills; that requires deliberate prioritization.
  • Most senior leaders believe they do not need mentoring.
  • The “Big 8” leadership capabilities are adaptability, strategic agility, self-renewal, character, empathy, communication, collaboration and developing other leaders.
  • Talent development is, arguably, the most vital of the Big 8 capabilities.

Critical challenges can make leaders stronger.

Enduring a crisis can build a leader’s skills. This can happen not only during times of widespread turmoil, like the global financial crisis of 2008 or the COVID-19 pandemic, but also amid emergencies that have significance only within specific industries or organizations.

Few businesses grapple in advance with the impact turbulent change will have on their senior executives or think about the issues that force leaders to change. Yet during an upheaval, leaders honed by crisis are often the ones who take on the responsibility of reshaping their organizations.

“A leader locked into the tried and true of yesterday and being unable to let go is following a recipe for failure and obsolescence.”

Organizations react to the speed, systemic nature and volatility of change by developing new ways of doing business, new operating systems and fresh customer service strategies. However, they rarely consider how daunting challenges build leaders – and neither do leaders themselves. In the aftermath of a crisis, leaders should examine how they acted while under pressure, consider the effects of these “defining moments,” and reflect on what they learned as they dealt with challenges that forced them to change and grow.

Three game changers affect leadership: Stakeholder demands, the workforce and changing strategies.

When questions arise about a leader’s competence, most internal organizational discussions focus on three factors that drive change and affect the demands on a leader: stakeholder expectations, the shifting characteristics of the workforce and the workplace, and the effectiveness and duration of “short-lived strategies and digital dominance.”

“Leadership must be prepared for and respond to a constant sense of urgency.”

In the past, boards of directors were concerned primarily with their organization’s strategy and how it was implemented. Then their concerns shifted to ethical considerations. More recently, however, they have turned their focus to leaders’ agility in adapting strategies quickly enough to meet changing circumstances.

Four fallacies about leadership make adaptability and rapid change more difficult.

Four mistaken beliefs about how leadership works make it harder for leaders to succeed. First, people believe, without evidence, that the ability to lead remains constant – that strong leaders always remain strong. They suggest, again, without evidence, that a leader’s soft skills naturally improve over time, without deliberate development. They mistakenly think that outstanding performers can always advance to become great leaders. And they erroneously believe that only junior executives need mentors.

The nature of leadership changes. It is “dynamic; it is not static.” Leadership shifts because the context in which businesses operate also changes. Leaders must be able to change their perceptions and give up even long held points of view.

“Leadership is…learned and is strengthened through lifelong learning.”

Leadership professor Janice Gross Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, suggests that change can come in two forms. One kind of change occurs within a known context, and fits into the broad, familiar framework that supported those in leadership as they rose to their positions of power. In the second form, a leader must grapple with a dramatically altered context, adapt and think beyond the “tried and true.” As Stein writes, “the key determinant is context.” For example, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the business environment drastically; leaders who could think only about things returning to normal failed to prepare themselves or their organizations for the new challenges ahead.

Time spent doing a job doesn’t improve a leader’s soft skills; that requires deliberate prioritization.

In discussions about promotions, leaders may doubt an otherwise competent executive’s soft skills, but they often promote the individual anyway, believing he or she will develop improved soft skills over time. This belief predominates in the process of selecting leaders, with a substantial negative impact on leaders who, subsequently, fumble and fail.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel.” (Poet Maya Angelou)

A leader’s colleagues, customers and subordinates suffer the consequences when a leader lacks soft skills. Leaders must learn to be aware of how they affect other people and how much their employees notice what they do. They must act with thoughtful intent. However, many leaders fail to work deliberately on developing self-awareness, a deficit that hampers their ability to perform well or to empathize with other people, and that may lead to failure. Research shows that self-aware leaders are up to four times more likely to succeed than those who lack this quality.

Most senior leaders believe they do not need mentoring.

Most experienced leaders think that only junior and next-level executives benefit from mentoring. They think senior executives need such help only if they have a problem. However, research shows that in practice almost 80% of CEOs talk to people who serve as mentors – perhaps seeking advice from a member of their Board of Directors or from a peer or friend – though they may not explicitly think of this as a mentoring process.

“Oh, yes, I have had a long list of mentors whom I regularly call for advice. Many have been a source of ‘go to’ for over a decade. It is core to my success.” (Marc-André Blanchard, executive vice president, CDPQ Global Investment Group)

Until 2008, corporations directed very few of their organized educational efforts toward senior leaders. That changed with the economic crisis. Now, organizations often engage their top executives in development activities, both in the classroom and on the job. Leaders who receive such training need to use what they learn as they pursue their leadership activities.

Most leaders think they know their own strengths and weaknesses, but almost 80% have either a weakness or a strength they conceal. Often, they are not introspective and simply feel confident because they have a long track record of success. Mentors can help leaders see more deeply into areas they have, for whatever reason, blinded themselves from confronting.

The “Big 8” leadership capabilities are adaptability, strategic agility, self-renewal, character, empathy, communication, collaboration and developing other leaders.

As leaders and their teams compete for resources, they should base their work on “spirited collaboration.” To succeed, leaders must cultivate an open mind – which supports adaptability – and develop the capacity to conceptualize from a team point of view. They must trust their people, practice inclusivity and encourage even those who disagree with them.

“Execution is even more critical than how brilliant the strategy is itself. However, leaders need to be reminded that strategy is also market-based. It depends on ongoing analysis and fast action.”

Author Rose M. Patten decided to delve into the subject of leadership after the global financial crisis revealed that some leaders and institutions had indulged in unsavory activities. Patten set out to explore how leadership evolves under stress and what abilities leaders must possess. She developed the “Big 8” framework, which outlines those capabilities.

Starting in 2010, members of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and BMO Financial Group’s Executive Leadership programs discussed and debated these eight abilities over the course of 25 week-long sessions. They also examined each of the eight factors using a case study methodology that held it up to rigorous analysis.

The Big 8 leadership capabilities are:

  1. Personal adaptability” – Tiff Macklem, governor of the Bank of Canada, suggests regularly checking on your leadership pluses and minuses. That exercise enables you to draw on different strengths when you meet a fresh challenge. In a crisis or risky situation, you can’t just follow a well-worn playbook. You can’t afford to immobilize yourself or fall back on old ways of responding. You can use your former experiences to get your bearings, but you must adapt to meet the problems of the moment.
  2. Strategic agility” – Try to maintain an open mind. Don’t allow your ideas to become rigid or constricted. You need to be flexible to make the most of new opportunities and handle fresh challenges. This could mean scrapping strategies and norms that worked well in the past. This level of change may be more difficult to cope with than everyday leadership challenges.
  3. Self-Renewal – Leaders must be able to renew themselves if they want to draw on their Big 8 capabilities. Leaders who can’t keep an open mind limit their ability to use personal adaptability and strategic agility for self-renewal. Macklem says that self-assessment leads to intentional leadership and helps you deepen your insights into yourself. Ron Farmer, managing director at Mosaic Capital Partners, emphasizes that “feedback and self-assessment” are vital assets in the development of senior executives.
  4. Character – Hard circumstances don’t erode real character. You create your character, and you must answer for it in all situations. People may feel uncomfortable listing good character as an essential prerequisite for leadership because they believe it just exists, by itself, without effort. In fact, having good character is a matter of “earning and re-earning trust” and consciously pursuing truthfulness and transparency.
  5. Empathy – Empathy, which stems from a person’s core values, plays a vital role in leadership. Leaders must accept responsibility for leading across silos and being understanding and sympathetic toward others. This is not a mechanical process they can assign to someone else or delegate, for example, to their human resources department. Leaders’ large and small decisions determine the atmosphere within their organizations. The way they interact with their colleagues, daily, has dramatic influence. Senior executives who behave harshly undermine the tone of their organizations, while those who take time to recognize and talk to their employees at all levels – like the senior executive who was known for having coffee with the “overnight shoeshine man” – help create more effective cultures.
  6. Contextual communication” – Most lists of leadership attributes include effective communication that is sensitive to its context. Yet most institutional surveys do not rank leadership communication highly. Today’s workforce wants to know the purpose – the “why” – behind communication; traditional forms of communication mostly highlight the “what.” With increased access to information through social media and the internet, people tend to form their own opinions and perspectives, perhaps without leadership input. Leaders must explain a decision’s consequences in terms of the particular organization or team it affects. Senior executives must discuss the purpose behind an initiative and not stop at just explaining the objective.
  7. Spirited collaboration” – When teams and their leaders face contentious issues, they must collaborate. Successful leaders develop the capacity to think like their teams. They trust their teams and don’t micromanage. They encourage all team members, including those who disagree with them. Leaders must have the ability to share leadership, instead of expecting to stand out like heroes. Heroism, if it exists, resides in the team.
  8. Developing other leaders” – Leaders have always taken on the job of developing future leaders, including their successors. However, given the tectonic shifts in the global environment, the capabilities that managers need today aren’t the same as those they needed in the past. Now, leaders must adopt different methods. One approach is to use the Big 8 traits to assess leaders’ strengths and weaknesses and to show them what they need to do to grow and improve.

Talent development is, arguably, the most vital of the Big 8 capabilities.

Even though leaders should focus on leadership development at every stage of their careers, most businesses do not sufficiently prepare their top executives in the area of talent development. As a result, organizations lack a sufficient supply of leaders. Given that, the Big 8 capability of developing leaders figures prominently, compared to the seven others, but it’s not separate from them. This is because the distinct capabilities outlined in the Big 8 framework overlap as leaders work together to help their organization achieve its objectives.

Organizations often invest more money in technical capabilities than in the resources needed to develop talent and lead people.

“One’s own self-concept, combined with objective feedback from other sources, is the core ingredient for being self-aware. It takes intention, courage and fortitude.”

In the past, when researchers asked senior executives what they would have done differently in their careers, the answer often was that they would have sped up their strategies for initiating and implementing change. Now, they may say something similar, but they also might add that they would have acted sooner to strengthen their teams, to include the most talented people and to equip them to work together. Leaders want to make sure their teams and team members have the capabilities to achieve their goals.

About the author

Rose M. Patten is a Canadian businessperson and philanthropist. Since 2018, she has served as the Chancellor of the University of Toronto. Patten was named to the Hall of Fame of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in 2007.

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