As leaders work to shape their attention, they develop a capacity to control their behavior, emotions, and thoughts in the pursuit of long-term goals. Rather than reacting by impulse, they develop the capacity to respond in a mindful way. In other words, they build their skill in thinking before acting.
This is sometimes referred to as “regulating” attention, which involves directing attention consciously for a specific developmental purpose, and sustaining it there despite distraction.
This skill - regulating attention - is one of the most valuable for leaders to develop for multiple reasons:
- Attention drives behavior, and leaders are constantly modeling behavior for their organizations. Their team will emulate what they do, not just what they say.
- Where attention goes, awareness flows - and greater awareness leads to better decision making. Through a more complete awareness of multiple perspectives of a situation, they’ll have a more complete picture with which to make effective decisions.
- Attention drives learning. To learn anything, they first need to be able to direct and hold their attention on a desired target. This is true for physical skills like learning to play tennis, and is just as true for leadership skills.
Regulation of attention involves several steps that direct attention in ways that help leaders grow. As an executive coach, I use a method called action learning that describes a process for my clients to engage in every week irrespective of the skill they are trying to learn. This process helps them focus on applying new behaviors for a specific purpose, taking in information about what worked and what didn’t, and extracting the learning from each practice interaction. This process has several steps, depicted below:
- Setting an intention: What does the leader want to learn/change? Examples might include: to be triggered less by challenging situations, or to notice the sensations in my body when I become triggered.
- Taking action: What will the leader do to change their behavior or try a new way of responding?
- Observation: What’s happening in the moment - both within the leader and around them? This is the most important of these steps. How did that go? What did they experience in mind and body? What did they notice in others?
- Reflection: What did that mean for the leader in terms of the context in which the action took place? This is an evaluation of what they did, non-judgmentally.
- Learning: What did they learn from this experience?
- Planning: What will they try again the same way? What will they change in their next practice opportunity? What is the next opportunity to practice?
The capacity for leaders to grow through regulating their attention is strengthened when they set an intention on where to focus, reflect on their experience and how it brought them closer to their learning goal, and then adjust their actions to maximize their learning outcomes. In other words, they learn from their experience in a conscious and thoughtful way. And, they build on these learnings to create new habits, patterns and ways of being.
In its most basic form, regulation of attention through a process like action learning allows leaders to develop resilience from challenging situations and stay calm under pressure. These two abilities will carry them through life, more than other skills.
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