• Leadership

The Challenges of Intentional Leadership

A conversation with Professor Kenneth Corts of the Rotman School of Management


By downloading this resource your information will be shared with its authors. Full privacy statement.

At a time beset with geopolitical and economic turbulence, the business world has never been in greater need of strong effective leadership. So, how should leaders show up and leadership be delivered to meet the challenges they face?

Over and above the traditional pressures associated with steering an organization to sustainable success, the current business climate presents several new challenges for leaders. Addressing these requires leaders to refocus their approach and renew their skills.

Four current leadership challenges

According to Professor Kenneth Corts of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, there are four conspicuous challenges demanding the attention of today’s leaders. The first is in coming to terms with who they are accountable to as leaders. The CEO must still report to the board and the shareholders, but leaders now, “find themselves in a world where they have responsibility to meet the expectations of a diverse set of stakeholders that range far beyond the traditional ones.”

“You've got customers being more vocal, the competition for talent making labor more demanding about what to expect of an organization, and all kinds of NGOs and social movements holding firms accountable in different ways,” observes Corts. “Navigating this complex environment is a different challenge that does not come naturally to people used to answering to a narrower set of stakeholders.”

A second challenge is presented by the outlook of the workforce. The deferential employees of the past, who sacrificed some of their personal agency in return for long-term secure jobs, have long gone. Today’s workers are free agents who typically lack any long-term commitment to their employer. “People are less loyal to organizations, expecting to hold a job for less time, thinking more about their next move,” says Corts. People also have views about the moral purpose of their preferred employers, “wanting to work for organizations that align with their values.”

There is also pressure on leaders to accommodate remote working, flexible schedules, even to follow a gig economy model. “Maybe we never lived in a command-and-control world, but we often thought we did. It’s a very different workplace now to the stereotypical industrial multinational of the 20th century, where you had a clear hierarchy, lifetime employees that came to the office every day, and you could tell them what to do.” Leadership today involves leading teams of independent individuals, often assembled project by project, that are not as easily led.

The third challenge comes from the march of technology. In every sector, business leaders, having dealt with digitization, must now galvanize the whole organization—not just the IT and HR departments—to maximize the potential efficiency gains AI promises, and at the same time manage the human impact (upskilling and job losses), the cyber risks, and the market uncertainty also implied.

“We talk about AI a lot,” recalls Corts “But, what do we even mean? There are many different things hiding in that label. In a few short years, we went from talking big data, machine learning and the ability to predict customer behavior, to talking about generative AI and the replacement of even high-skilled professionals with AI bots.” This raises a whole new set of questions. “Do you deploy AI in your product development? Which jobs will be empowered by it? And which jobs are undermined? AI changes the landscape of the organization.”

The fourth big challenge comes from “the accelerating awareness of and attention to climate.” While the biggest polluters have been attuned to their environmental liabilities, today the climate crisis is “increasingly something nobody can or would want to avoid. You have to think about your exposure to climate risk, but you also have to think about what opportunities may await you in the trillions of dollars of annual investment that will be deployed in the energy transition. Climate change and the associated economic transition  is an imperative for every organization and therefore every leader.”

Leadership renewed

In an environment disrupted by social media, generative AI, and the erosion of mainstream news sources, we all need new skills to make sense of the world. For business leaders, confronted with the four current challenges cited by Corts, skills renewal is critical. It is not sufficient to rely on previous experience or on one’s position in the hierarchy. Instincts that may have worked before, familiar practices, and former ways of leading, need to be rethought and refreshed to be fit for the future.


Join Kenneth Corts and Rose Patten on Rotman’s Executive Leadership program to renew your leadership skills, enhance your professional network, and be ready for tomorrow’s challenges.

Dates: Oct 6-9, and Nov17-20, 2024 | Format: In-person | Location: Toronto ………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

“Leadership demands your attention, and it demands your intention,” declares Corts. “You must work on adapting your skills to the situation that you're in, the changes in society, the team you're working with, and the role and the kind of organization you’re in. Leadership is the deliberate and intentional development of, and exercise of, a set of skills, that is neither something you're given by your title, nor something you're born with as a personality trait.”

This deliberate approach to leadership which is context dependent and particularly suited to today’s more flattened organizational hierarchies and more collaborative cultures, is called ‘Intentional Leadership.’ It was originated by leadership expert Rose Patten, Chancellor of the University of Toronto, a colleague of Professor Corts on Rotman’s Executive Leadership program,

Intentional leadership is “a leadership style that reacts to, and works to harness and make the best of the new kinds of attitudes that people are bringing to work.” Developing as a leader “is not just about learning conceptual frameworks, financial techniques, or analytical tools to apply to business problems,” says Corts. “It is about ways of thinking about your own personal leadership and the way you personally bring out the best in the people in the organization.”

The intentional leader sees current challenges as opportunities. Relating to and engaging with a broad range of vocal stakeholders, and leading a diverse team that you no longer have traditional control over. A team of individuals who, if fully included, can bring new energy and ideas. To harness these opportunities for growth as a leader and for the organization involves, “not just being intentional about how you exercise renewed skills, but being intentional in how you invest in yourself to build those skills,” advises Corts.

Intentional leadership, being agile and adaptive to context, is very relevant when it comes to the challenge of leading an AI-powered business. “Some people wonder how they can lead a organization through an AI revolution if they are not a computer scientist. But AI is a tool. We've never expected every leader to master every tool that is deployed by the organization,” observes Corts. The leader’s role is to think through what new opportunities are created, what resources are required, and what new partnerships may be needed to explore proprietary adaptation. Those questions do require certain kinds of skills in the leader, but these largely transcend the specific technology. Leadership in this context is about “building teams to be proactively studying the environment, understanding developments, challenging the status quo, and freely sharing their ideas, even when these might be countercultural to the organization.”

“The leader must ‘see the forest for the trees,’ and avoid getting drawn into their narrow expertise or passion in a way that makes it hard to rise up and see the broader picture.” This relates to another theme, implicit in intentional leadership, humility—“The humility demanded of leaders to always challenge assumptions and the status quo, and especially to challenge themselves.”

Ensuring ESG principles are embedded in the organization, in the face of skepticism and backlash, again benefits from intentional leadership. “The debate around the value of ESG has become heated and polarized; yet it's imperative to do ESG if you want to deliver value,” states Corts. “ESG tools and frameworks are really about providing a structured approach to understanding the concerns of a rich array of stakeholders that you need to keep onside if your organization is going to thrive and create value.”

Corts adds, “It is important to remember that the primary ESG frameworks such as the Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) guidelines or the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) framework were created largely at the behest of the capital markets, for the precise purpose of ensuring firms stay focused on long-term value creation in a world buffeted by a changing environment with more diverse and more vocal stakeholders.” The drive for accountability and stakeholder responsiveness that characterizes ESG frameworks aligns well with Cort’s four challenges.

Intentional leaders are not only self-aware and clear about their goals and values, but also intentional about how they develop their people and the organization. When Corts asserts that: “A key aspect of leadership in the changing environment is meeting heightened stakeholder expectations,” and that: “If you articulate purpose in a way that is constructive, aspirational and pro-social, it will be very inspirational to employees….. aligning people around strategy,” he is both articulating the essence of the new challenges leaders face and showing why intentional leadership is needed to address them.


Professor Kenneth S. Corts is Vice-Dean, Research, Strategy, and Resources and Academic Director of the Lee-Chin Institute for Corporate Citizenship at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management. He also holds the Desautels Chair in Entrepreneurship and is a professor in the Economic Analysis and Policy area. He is currently the academic director of the Executive Leadership and ESG Designation programs at the Rotman School.


Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world

Google Analytics Alternative