Lead With Intention: Why Amazing Leaders Master the Moment Between Stimulus and Response
By Rob Dube
The brightest ideas often spark when we give ourselves permission to slow down. Something about letting go of all that pressure allows the clearest visions to bubble up. And it was in that mental space—lying silently on a yoga mat in California—that Anese Cavanaugh’s groundbreaking strategic leadership method, IEP (Intentional Energetic Presence), was officially born.
Before this pivotal moment, Anese had already achieved success advising top corporations on creating stronger company cultures. However, she’d been struggling on what to call her innovative approach to leadership. She knew it worked. She knew it was different. But without a name—a real brand—was it really hers?
She stretched her brain to the limits, clamoring for the right words. She even hired experts to facilitate the naming process. But after months of mental roadblocks, Anese decided to stop being so hard on herself. She embarked on a yoga retreat with the intention of letting go. And it worked.
“I literally heard and felt Intentional Energetic Presence. It was so powerful that I got up, and I left the class,” she remembers. Returning to her room, she immediately reserved a domain name, and the IEP Method was born.
By building onto her expertise with a concise, marketable method, Anese’s reputation skyrocketed. Since devising the IEP Method, she’s worked with world-renowned companies like Nike, IBM, IDEO and GM Financial. She also writes a column for Inc.com called “Showing Up” and contributes to publications like the Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post.
She’s also published several books including Contagious Culture: Show Up, Set the Tone, and Intentionally Create an Organization that Thrives and The Leader You Will Be: An Invitation, a rhyming picture book. She’s also a frequent speaker.
So, what is the IEP Method and how was Anese inspired to spread her ideas to organizations worldwide?
What Happens When We All Show Up
In its simplest terms, Anese describes the IEP Method as “having the intention to do it, the energy to make it happen and the presence to show up.” But like any cutting-edge concept, the process quickly evolves into something much deeper.
The IEP Method “is about how we show up in the world and [hold ourselves] accountable for how we show up,” says Anese. “We can’t control what happens around us, but we can control our state and how we interact with those things.”
However, Anese didn’t always embrace intention and positivity. Instead, she was a painfully shy girl who believed her deep sense of empathy was debilitating. Teachers even told Anese that she “would never make it in the real world because [she was] too sensitive.”
But few events encapsulate Anese’s tenacity like her fourth-grade campaign for class treasurer, which led to a moment that ultimately changed her life.
“I went to school. I had my brand-new pink outfit on. I got up to give my talk and the kids started to boo me. They started to yell ‘Get off the stage!’” She admits telling this story today still makes her heart beat faster. “I can still remember being that little fourth grader.”
The boos kept coming, but a mortified Anese kept on talking. Once she finally stepped offstage, she told herself, “I will never speak in front of people again.”
But then one person made a simple, bold, compassionate decision.
One of Anese’s teachers later took the still-shaken girl aside and said, “I saw your talk earlier. You have a really big voice and it’s really important. Don’t ever let anybody tell you differently.”
In a simple act that took seconds, this teacher influenced the rest of Anese’s life. She began to understand the immense power of positivity, persistence and the value of showing up for others.
“I think he’s part of the reason why we’re having this conversation.”
Finding Purpose-Driven Passion
Fast-forward decades. Anese took her teacher’s words to heart and leaned deep into her authentic self. After graduating from Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) with a degree in athletic training and clinical exercise, she took a job at Chevron as part of their wellness department in San Francisco.
However, it was a move to Chicago with her now ex-husband that truly lit Anese’s entrepreneurial spirit. While working as a personal trainer, Anese began building a health and productivity consulting company. She designed the website, business cards and marketing plan, then sat back waiting for clients to file in.
“But then nothing happened.” Though only a couple months had passed since launch, the new business owner became frustrated at her perceived failure and shut it down. She took another job and soon became pregnant.
Just as she was settling into her new reality, Anese started receiving calls from people interested in her now-shuttered company. The seeds planted early in her business venture finally began to sprout, and she realized she’d quit too soon.
But soon Anese’s son was born, and everything changed. For the next year, nothing was more important than motherhood. Still, Anese had a passion for work that could only be kept at bay for so long. “I started to get itchy,” she says. “I want[ed] me back.”
The entrepreneurial bug had bit Anese—but nothing matched her love for her son. To justify leaving Jake at home, Anese refused to compromise and take any job offered to her. She had to find more than the perfect career. She had to find one that also brought value to herself and to others.
But for Anese, what exactly did that career path look like? Rather than jump onto a job board, she took destiny into her own hands while sitting in her car one day.
“I took out a pad of Post-its and I started to write everything I’d ever done that I loved in my career. Working with athletes? Love this part. Working in Corporate America? Love this. And before you knew it, my whole dashboard was lined up with this amazing job description.
“And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, who would give me that job?!’ Well, there’s no job like that so I was like ‘Well, what if I made the job?’”
The next morning, she woke up at 5 a.m. and her company was born. Though the name “IEP” wouldn’t come until that fateful yoga session years later, Anese envisioned helping businesses build stronger cultures and cultivate impactful leadership through creativity, positivity and intention.
On Showing Up With Intention
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor E. Frankl
Leadership becomes exceptional when leaders master their reactions in the moments between stimulus and response. It’s not always about speed. This lesson, however, goes against what we’re commonly taught—that reactivity and quick thinking always win. We believe it’s better to say anything than to admit we have nothing productive to add. Anese wants us to unlearn that toxic lesson. Whether we’re running a small team or a massive enterprise, everything we do or say carries real power. Accepting responsibility for what we present is crucial for effective leadership, even if that means tapping out until you’re ready to respond with thought and confidence.
Exceptional leadership also begins with honesty and intention. Every action has an impact and can set the tone for a company’s entire culture. Anese says to ensure what you’re giving sends ripples of positivity. After all, small ripples soon turn into waves, and those waves can change everything.
But what about those moments where you can’t call a timeout? Sometimes, all it takes is gifting yourself a minute to press pause and reboot. “Really breathe and connect with your body,” says Anese. “That in itself can be enough to get you to the next moment without falling apart.
Anese tells a story where she was asked a big question at the end of a long day. Instead of spouting off a satisfactory but uninspired answer, she responded, “I love this question. I want to answer this question tomorrow after I’ve gotten a really good night’s sleep and I’ve thought about it. The answer to this question is going to set the direction for what you’re talking about and I want to be really responsible about that.”
We all hold power to decide what emotions we’re sending out. Do we emit positive, present and empathic practices, or are we apathetic, overly reactive workers focused solely on our paychecks? If leaders don’t seem to care, why should anyone else?
Everything Comes Full Circle
It was 3 a.m. back in 2009, and Anese was furiously piecing together a strategy for a client. Fueled by Diet Coke, M&Ms and exhaustion, she was sitting back in her office chair staring at a note-filled wall when a child-like rhyme jumped into her head:
“How does a leader inspire the folks? Does he shut down and grimace and say nope, nope, nope?”
Writing down these words had little to do with that night’s immediate task at hand, but Anese felt the compulsion to run with it. Likely stirred up by the countless books she’d been reading to her kids, she cranked out the beginnings of a poem that would later become The Leader You Will Be: An Invitation.
She wrote The Leader You Will Be with the intention of it never leaving her office. However, everyone that read it knew she’d hit upon something special. “Every single company that I shared it with thought that I wrote it specifically for them and their issues.”
It took over a decade and countless people cheering her on to finally bring a published version to fruition—and she hasn’t looked back. Now, Anese knows the entire poem by heart and performs it regularly at seminars and conferences. Rooms are packed to the brim with leaders excited for an opportunity to see it live.
The poem ends, and Anese receives more than just applause. As tears fill the eyes of her captivated audience, this once-mortified fourth grader earns a standing ovation.
Want to hear my entire conversation with Anese Cavanaugh? Learn more about her early struggles in finding her life’s path, balancing family life with her career, how she starts every morning with intention and more on the donothing Podcast. Check out her full podcast episode here or watch the full interview on my YouTube channel.
Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne. For more about how mindfulness will transform you and your business, check out my book donothing and visit the donothing website for more information.