Attention, or rather the lack of it, is fast becoming a leadership challenge for the 21st century. Exponentially growing information, the constant threat of disruption, and an inter-connected world in the palm of our hands brings huge benefits but there is a price to be paid. That price is our ability to attend to what is important: a meeting, a conversation, a problem that needs solving or simply the customer. It could be a question that needs to be asked, but the clutter and noise inside our heads does not allow that question to surface. Like Sisyphus, we keep pushing the same boulder uphill only to see it roll down.
I was traveling in a car the other day with a young, successful executive who had picked me up at the airport to take me to the venue where I was to speak to his top management team. Sitting beside me in the car, he asked me what I thought was the single most important leadership attribute for a senior executive. I turned to him to answer and I noticed that in the meanwhile, he had started texting on his smartphone. I replied that the most important leadership attribute was the ability to listen intently. The irony was lost on him.
The ability to pay attention is a gift that is available to the human mind, and for leaders it is arguably one of their most critical abilities. Attention allows us to perceive and read a situation accurately, process the information faster and with less bias, and take better decisions. It also allows us to reach into higher-level cognitive functions such as empathy, and help us lead with presence. It provides leaders with the ability to read weak signals that emerge from peripheral space: early warning signs that soon grow into big ones. Attention-deficit leaders are more likely to take decisions on incomplete data or not tune into what is what is really emerging around them. In fact, the decision to bring down the curtains on Lehmann Brothers at the start of the economic crisis in 2008 was fuelled more by attention-deficit, lack of sleep and over-caffeinated brains than a strategic imperative to solve the problem.
There is a bigger problem at hand, one that is relevant to workplaces in fast growing economies like India where the sheer speed of getting multiple things done at once, combined with a cultural tendency to hurry, overloads the brain. Recent research in neurology demonstrates clearly that this creates a deficit in the ability of leaders to think clearly. Combined with stress, it becomes a lethal recipe for trying to multi-task, one of the biggest myths from the previous century. Multi-tasking simply does not work. It diminishes productivity and draws upon well-worn and often dysfunctional reactions and behaviors that may be useful for doing repetitive tasks, but are quite useless where we need to think. Combine that with a propensity to believe that staying late in the office equates to productivity, we have a growing crisis at hand.
The antidote: attend to one thing at a time; and when it is done put it away and move to the next task. Ask three questions: “what is the conversation I need to have?”; “what is the action I need to take?”; “what is the behavior I need to demonstrate?”. Remember: the leader’s work is to create significance and meaning for others.