Intent-based Leadership in Kindergarten

My brother just hipped me to the concept of Intent-based leadership. He sees value in adding it to our coaching practice. It sounds promising so I’ve started watching the plethora videos he suggested. As I watch I have to say I agree with him, and I’m thinking — “Wow! This isn’t just a good idea for our fencing team, this would be great to share with my Kindergartners!”

Leadership, responsibility, intent, learning, in Kindergarten
(created the photo art with goart.fotor.com)

Intent-based leadership looks like another awesome way for my Kindergartners to grow in their CASEL 5, as well as, academic excellence and joy. It will encourage my students to think about what they know, what they don’t know yet, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what and how they’re learning. My hunch is it’s going to be a powerful tool in the classroom.

Intent-based leadership was developed by L. David Marquet, while a Captain in the US Navy as a Commander of the nuclear submarine Santa Fe. Two quotes on his website hooked me! (I’ve adapted them for the classroom.)

Imagine a school (work place) where everyone engages and contributes their full intellectual capacity. A school (place) where people are healthier and happier because they have more control over their work – a school (place) where everyone is a leader.

Teaching (Leadership) is communicating to students, colleagues, and parents (people) their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.

How fantabulous is that? I’m still exploring and pondering, and there are a gazillion good ideas to consider, but here are five of my “OH!” and “AHA!” moments regarding using intent-based leadership in the classroom

#1 There isn’t one source of power, information, and leadership on the nuclear sub or in our classroom. Students and teachers share in the responsibility of learning and growing a fantabulous classroom community.

Do I have a lot of information as the teacher? Yes. Do I bear a large portion of the responsibility? Yes. Do I have a considerable amount of power? Yes.

However, do I have all the information as the teacher? No. Do I have all the responsibility? No. Do I have all the power? No. My students also have a considerable amount of information, responsibility, and power.

My Kindergartners are knowledgeable about many things — they understand what they love, what motivates them, what they think they know, what they think they don’t know, what they actually know and don’t know, what’s going on with them and their friends, what’s going on at home, and so much more.

Ask any of my students if they have any responsibilities in our classroom. Each will say yes. They have class jobs. They are responsible for how they behave, what they say, what they do or don’t do. It sometimes takes them a bit to realize just how responsible they are. Here’s a common conversation.

Student: “My mom forgot to put my folder in my bag, Miss James.”
Me: “Your mom forgot to put your folder in your bag?
Student: :Yes.”
Me: “Whose folder is it?”
Student: “Mine.”
Me: “Who forgot to pack it.”
Student “My mom.”
Repeat until ….
Me: “Who forgot to pack your folder?”
Student: “Me?”
Me: (with a big smile) “Yup! Hope you remember tomorrow!”
The folder always makes it in the next day.

My students are strong, rich, and powerful. Some understand that and use it well. Others don’t realize the power they have. Still others know they have power, but don’t always use it in the best way. I’m eager to help them recognize, embrace, and use their power well. The fantabulous humans in my Kindergarten and I are going to have a remarkable leadership journey together this year!

Our classroom community will flourish when we all co-exist as bearers of knowledge, responsible classroom citizens, and powerful leaders. As we step into our leadership opportunities, listen to one another, reflect upon what we hear, and value one another’s ideas, my Kindergartners will begin to blossom. They will experience and understand themselves as valuable and essential partners in our classroom community and in their learning journey.

If David is correct — and all the data suggests he is — this will reduce tension in the classroom while increasing productivity and happiness.

#2 It’s valuable to know what you intend to do, why you intend to do it, and how you intend to do it.
There are times my students need to do what I tell them to do. But there are other times when they are able to choose between various options. It would be amazing for them to be able to choose based on what is most valuable and helpful to themselves and their learning.

For instance, in reading they might listen to reading, read to someone, work on writing, or do some word work activity. How do they choose what to do? Do they simply follow a schedule I set up for them? If so, then they intend to follow directions. There is value in following directions that is true, but there are also times when it would be good for me to allow them to decide what they intend to do.

For instance perhaps they intend to — share a favorite book with a friend, or listen to reading so as to learn about snakes, or do word-work so they can learn their sight words and thereby grow as a reader. How awesome is that? They understand why they are doing what they are doing, and are working with intrinsic motivation.

I want them to know that even if they haven’t received specific directions from a teacher, they can still do wonderfully productive and fantabulous things. I want them to be confident in their ability to think, reflect, and make good decisions. And, I want them to actually make those good decisions.

This will require a good deal of trust on my part. I will need to trust myself, my students, and the process. And, I will have to be willing to take it one step at a time.

I know I will need do a good bit of frontloading, modeling, and scaffolding. We will have to build relationships, trust, and skill. There will be many discussions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What did we experience? What do we want to experience? What did we learn? How did we learn it? When might we do that again? Is there anything that might work better?

The process feels incredibly daunting, and, at the same time, amazingly powerful and exciting.

#3 Student: “I intend to …” Me “What am I thinking right now?”

When my students tell me what they are motivated to do, and what they intend to do, it will be important for me to engage in conversation with them. Sometimes it might be — tell me more. Sometimes it might be “What am I thinking right now?” These questions allow my students to take ownership of themselves and what they intend, while at the same time having the benefit of my thoughts, experiences, and sense of things.

Some of the things I’m thinking might be:
Is it safe? Convince me that it’s safe.
Is it productive? Convince me that it’s productive.
Is it the right thing to do? Convince me that it’s the right thing to do.
Is it kind? Convince me that it’s kind.

This type of exchange is a learning experience for my students and myself. I get to learn what they’re thinking, and why they’re thinking it. I discover areas that aren’t clear to them and that might benefit from greater explanation or experience. They get to think through the process, consider their actions, and remember the purpose of the particular learning moment.

Again, I’m struck by the enormity of the process. And yet, if my goal is to begin to help my students become their best, most brilliant selves, I must take the chance. If I hope to help create not just students who can do what I ask them to do, but humans who can make good decisions and impact themselves and others in powerful ways, then it’s time to give it a go.

#4 We are all leaders and all followers

This isn’t about anarchy. We are all leaders, and all followers. We cannot just choose to intend to do something that is against the guiding principles of the organization. We choose to be part of the organization — in my case, my students’ parents choose to have their children be part of our classroom community. After making that commitment there are certain ways we must comply. For instance we must do our best, be kind, and treat each other with respect. There are other ways we can exercise our leadership and creativity. It’s always about learning and growing and being our best possible selves as individuals and a community.

#5 You can do it, *Molly (*Insert your name here.)

In one of the leadership nudges, David suggests we use our name when encouraging ourselves. Instead of “I can do it.” I would say “Molly, you can do it.” At first it feels a bit silly, but after trying it, I like it. David posits that using the third person way of speaking to ourselves puts us in a bit of a less emotionally charged space. I experience it as though a kind friend is giving me the encouragement. I’m definitely going to suggest it to my Kindergartners. I think it will be valuable, and be worth a few chuckles.


So, there you have it. I intend to embark on the profound journey of intent based leadership with my Kindergartners this year. And, I intend to have a fantabulous year together. Wish me luck!


Here’s a bonus nugget so you can get a feel for intent-based leadership from David himself. The three name rule. I’m thinking about how to incorporate it into our classroom community.

2 thoughts on “Intent-based Leadership in Kindergarten

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