Skillful Action: Three Examples

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Skillfulness is a virtue.[1] It has practical and pragmatic implications for our efficacy at work and outside work, and for our healthy growth and development in these spheres of life. I’d like to discuss how this virtue manifests and makes a difference by referring to three specific kinds of skillful action: thought, speech, and kindness.

In order to avoid making this article unduly long and dense, I shall only address one of these skillful actions now. The remainder will follow in separate articles. Each deserves its moment in the sun.

Thought* as Intentionally Present

It’s been estimated that about 50% of our actions in life are attributable to habit. In one sense, habits save us from reinventing solutions to familiar problems. Those fascinated by the brain and neuroscience will describe the neural pathways and neural plasticity that account for this on a biological level. But I suspect habitual ways of being have always originated based upon learning and experience. We teach our brain.

So, habitual ways of acting might be contrasted with intentional ways of acting. The former operate less consciously, whereas the latter operate more consciously. However, more consciously does not mean fully consciously, or mindfully. To explore this difference, we must consider two distinct meanings of the word intentionality.

Thus, I would like you to consider the meaning of intention and intentional in two ways. In our most common use of these words what we mean is purpose or aim (intention) and deliberate or with forethought (intentional). Both are perfectly important and familiar mental acts, for example in the context of realizing goals and keeping promises. Notice how they pull us into the future, toward some future state.

There is another way in which these words can also be used. We can say of our mental acts that they are about something, thinking of something, seeing or feeling, something, or attending to something. In each case, the something we think, see, feel, or attend to is an object for us as thought, seen, felt, or attended to. And it is its “as experienced” quality that constitutes the second sense of the word intention or intentionality.  

Notice here that we remain within the subject-object poles of the mental act. Intention now refers to the “meant” object of our mental act. Intentionality concerns the way our experiencing mind acts and is affected by what it experiences. We are not now setting purpose, aims, or keeping a promise. We are simply noticing how we notice and attend to what we experience, which is constantly changing.

You may be thinking, “Okay that’s all either way to simple or way to abstract to have much practical importance to me.” But I caution you not to too quickly dismiss this simple difference and quality of mind. Upon further notice we see that what we are being deliberate about is not being deliberate in the goal-directed, future-oriented sense of the word intentional.

And by suspending this habitual tendency, we position ourselves to see something more. We see that it is not merely our deliberate purpose or aims that gives meaning to what we experience. The thing itself, when we suspend this urge to determine its meaning, to reduce meaning to our current purposes, reveals itself more completely to a curious mind.

Practical Implications

Intentionality in the purposive, goal-directed sense is a virtue of execution for managers and leaders. It keeps them and those they lead and whose work they supervise on track, on time, disciplined. But this focus also implies costs, especially when current modes of purposive execution are not working as hoped. In these moments incremental technical tweaks may not suffice.

We may then need to invoke a reflective pause, suspend our judgments (theories, beliefs, assumptions, and attributions of cause). We can then dwell in the moment to consider what we are intending, the meaning we are “imposing” upon the situation (phenomenal field), and to see, hear, learn what the things themselves reveal and have to tell us. Often, we learn something important in this attentional moment.

This is a vital and skillful action for leaders to cultivate and practice.

* Thought is never without feeling tones (affect) and seldom without moral meaning. Thus, conceiving of it as an arid, abstract intellectual function deprives it of value.

[1] The notion of skillfulness is used in our translation of Buddhist philosophy and psychology. It refers to a particularly enlightened or mindful approach to the practices we employ in living, working, and relating to others and our surrounding environment, human and nonhuman. As a way of being, I don’t believe it's absent in our Western traditions, but it certainly seems to have received more attention as a virtue in the East. With this in mind, I have sometimes recommended a mindfulness-based mode of leadership practice.