Becoming a Focused Leader

Published on: Feb 23, 2014 by Michael Snyder1 comment

Do you possess the intellectual, emotional and mental bandwidth to be a leader? Are you a brilliant systems thinker? The corporate culture driver? The executive setting priorities? From my 1980 MBA days at Cal State Los Angeles to multiple seminars and presentations, books and journal articles, I thought I’d heard everything relevant there was about being focused or achieving focus to promote success.

Then I read The Focused Leader in the Harvard Business Review.  The relevancy bucket is officially turned over.

Focus for successAs HBR author Daniel Goleman points out: “A primary task of leadership is to direct attention. To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention. When we speak about being focused, we commonly mean thinking about one thing while filtering out distractions.”

But recent research has shown that the human capacity to focus is much more than just concentrating attention.

Goleman claims that to promote real success, leaders must achieve a balance of focusing on themselves (in an appropriate context of self-awareness and self-assessment), focusing on others and focusing on the wider world. To do so increases the capacity for innovation, the ability to devise coherent strategy, and the capacity to manage effectively.

Why? Because, as Goleman asserts, “a failure to focus inward leaves you rudderless, a failure to focus on others renders you clueless, and a failure to focus outward may leave you blindsided.”

For leaders and managers used to talking and providing the communication output, focusing on one’s self—increasing strategic self-awareness—can be a challenge.

Developing “cognitive control”—better known as willpower—is a critical aspect of focus, and is well-known for its contributions to executive success. Included in this is the critical capacity for delayed gratification – the difficult character element that allows people to suspend wants, desires and craving and harness mental energy on advancing strategic tasks.

The strategic capacity to focus on others represents a major key to success. As Goleman writes: “Executives who can effectively focus on others are easy to recognize. They are the ones who find common ground, whose opinions carry the most weight, and with whom other people want to work. They emerge as natural leaders regardless of organizational or social rank.”

The innate ability to understanding other people’s perspective and what they need from you represents a bedrock trait of success. This can only be cultivated by learning to truly focus on others in an authentic—not facile—way. Goleman labels this strategic ability “cognitive empathy and cognitive concern” respectively.

He also brings up “emotion empathy,” which he defines as a critical leadership characteristic “for effective mentoring, managing clients, and reading group dynamics.”

All three blend to create a strategic capacity for focusing on others that advances organizations. Leaders or managers with responsibility who lack these capacities are often regarded by their peers and subordinates as “clueless.” Without these abilities—which can be learned and cultivated—their leadership aptitude and effectiveness may be limited or sub-optimized—they will likely experience difficulty in building critical relationships.

Finally, Goleman cites the need to focus—to direct available mental and emotional bandwidth—on the wider world.

Leaders who successfully focus on the wider world deploy two strategic tools: they listen carefully and actively, and they pose great questions that probe and enlighten. This cultivated and disciplined approach ignites the insightful capacity for them to become practical visionaries. These types of enlightened leaders seem to look around corners. Much to the mystification of their competitors, they understand the impact of a local decision on a global trend. To these people, there is no such things as “unrelated data.” They connect the dots.

Without focus, whatever measure of success one achieves is probably mostly accidental. Developing the strategic capacity to focus on one’s self, on others and on the wider world yields broad advancement, leading to real success.

As Goleman sums up:  “A focused leader is not the person concentrating on the three most important priorities of the year, or the most brilliant systems thinker, or the one most in tune with the corporate culture. Focused leaders can command the full range of their own attention: They are in touch with their inner feelings, they can control their impulses, they are aware of how others see them, they understand what others need from them, they can weed out distractions and also allow their minds to roam widely, free of preconceptions.”

Get truly focused now and achieve your real potential.

By Michael Snyder, Managing Principal, The MEK Group

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