Leadership has many facets to it. It looks different in each organization, in each role, and even in each situation - which is part of the challenge, and also what makes it fascinating to study. As I reflect back on the set of skills I most commonly coach my executive clients and their teams on, there is one common trend. This is a secret habit, the “one skill to rule them all” if you will. And it will help those you support to grow and develop as a leader more than any other.

What is this habit, you ask? It’s simple, but not easy to do. This is the habit of watching where you place your attention.

For leaders, attention is the vehicle through which they get results. Attention governs where they invest their time and how they use their calendar. It controls how much they invest in relationships versus how much they invest in accomplishing tasks. It guides what they notice, the awareness they develop, how they interpret facts, and how they respond to challenging situations. It guides how people experience them in any moment, and therefore the influence they have.

The unusual thing about attention is that it is adaptive - it responds to what it is exposed to and is always being trained. For example, the more attention becomes divided among multiple targets in the moment (like focusing on an email while listening in a meeting), the weaker and more fractured it gets. The more it is directed to interpreting non-verbal cues in meetings, the better it gets at reading people. The more it is directed to considering strategic issues in tactical meetings, the better it gets at big picture thinking.

So why is it that attention is adaptive? Attention is a mental capacity that relies on brain anatomy. There are key regions of the brain - networks of neurons - that are responsible for attentional tasks. And this brain anatomy is always changing itself in response to experience - which is how we learn. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity, and it turns out that attention is governed by it just as much as learning a new motor skill (such as learning to play tennis, for example).

What can you do to help build awareness of where leaders place their attention? One simple approach is to invite leaders to write down where their attention is going in every meeting, and compare this to where it needs to go to achieve a desired result. They might jot down 3-4 times per meeting where their attention is in each moment between the following 8 categories - by placing a checkmark on the corresponding category of thinking in the moment. These 8 categories divide into relational and achievement-related uses of attention:

  • Relational uses of attention:
    • Perceiving emotion in others: thinking or communicating about emotion in the room
    • Collaborating with others: thinking or communicating about creating mutually-beneficial relationships, win-win solutions, and synergy with others
    • Understanding others: thinking or communicating about different perspectives
    • Individual or team development: thinking or communicating about areas for development of others - without judgment
  • Achievement-related uses of attention:
    • Strategic focus: thinking or communicating about company, department or long-term objectives
    • Vision & purpose: thinking or communicating about a future state and possible impacts
    • Execution: thinking or communicating on what, how, and when work gets done
    • Decision-making: thinking or communicating about what and how decisions need to be made

From these observations on where they place their attention in individual meetings, they can add-up where attention tends to go over a day or a week. This can be a powerful form of self-awareness.

Invite leaders to try doing this exercise for a week, and then reflect on where their attention went and where they need to refocus it in the coming week to achieve their most important objectives.

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By Jonathan| May 3, 2019

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