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The Mind of the Leader: Awareness and Attention

Tom Goodell

There is a saying in the martial arts: “Choice follows awareness, energy follows attention.” Awareness and attention work together to produce effective leadership. Sometimes one dominates, sometimes the other, but both are necessary. For many people, awareness and attention do not come naturally, but they can be cultivated. Each serves to develop and enhance the other, and each has its own place in the mind of the leader.

Awareness

Awareness refers to the ability to perceive a broad array of events without specifically focusing on any of them. In a state of awareness, your mind is neither focused nor distracted. You set aside your emotions and interpretations and let events into your consciousness without filtering or censoring. This enables you to perceive what is happening on many fronts simultaneously so that when the time comes you can choose which events to focus on and interact with.

I recently observed an executive, we’ll call him Don, who used this skill in a tense but critical meeting with other leaders from his company. They were discussing a possible acquisition. Some felt very strongly that the acquisition should proceed, others were strongly opposed. The emotional tenor of the conversation heightened. Don’s typical behavior would have been to jump in quickly with loud and strong arguments for his view. But having worked with awareness practices he chose instead to remain silent, to stop thinking about his own perspective, and just listen to all the ideas and emotions that were being expressed. As he did this he grew calmer, and after several minutes he could sense more deeply the real concerns people had. Some were angry because they felt their views were not being respected; others were threatened because they felt the acquisition put them at risk. Some were excited because they believed the acquisition would enhance their position. But most of this went unexpressed. They argued loudly about the numbers and the logic of the acquisition while beneath those arguments lay these unspoken concerns. As Don perceived these deeper concerns he also became aware of the emotional roots of his own views, which helped him look more objectively at the pros and cons.

After several minutes of letting his awareness develop, he began asking specific and non-threatening questions of others in the meeting. The emotional charge of the conversation began to abate, and as people felt their own views were being heard and respected they found it easier to hear and respect others views as well. When the meeting ended there was agreement that more research was needed, but the most important outcome was that everyone felt they were on the same team. It was an elegant example of leadership in a volatile situation.

Attention

Don exercised awareness in order to perceive the complex dynamics of the meeting. Once he had taken those in he was able to focus on particular individuals and their concerns—in other words, he shifted from awareness to attention. When he addressed the CFO, for example, he asked specific questions about her concerns that the acquisition would raise havoc with her financial plans and he paid close attention to her responses, so that she knew he was genuinely interested rather than trying to prove her wrong. To do this he dropped his awareness of the broader dynamics of the room and shifted to focusing his attention on one person.

Awareness and attention are critical capabilities for leaders to master. Without them, you end up in distraction. After the meeting, I congratulated Don on how skillfully he had mediated the conversation. He thought for a moment, then said “Before developing my ability to tune into what others were feeling and what they cared about, and to consciously leverage my intuitive sense of where to focus my attention, I could be a bull in a china shop. I’d become distracted by my own emotions and thoughts, as well as all the activity around me, and lose connection with what was really important to me. Tension turned into chaos, and I ended up leading with an iron fist. No one—especially me—left those meetings feeling good. People certainly weren’t aligned. Now, when I exercise the skills of awareness and attention, the meetings sometimes go in unexpected directions, but the outcome is that people are lined up and energized to produce the necessary results. We’re more creative in solving problems and we’re getting a lot more done.”

Awareness and attention are closely related. You can only pay attention to something after you become aware of it, and even then staying attentive is not all that easy. A powerful tool for developing your capacity for awareness and attention is called mindfulness meditation. It is being used in corporations throughout the world to enhance leadership and improve productivity.[1] I describe mindfulness meditation, its benefits, and how to get started with it in the post Paying Attention: the Power of Mindfulness Meditation.

We live today in an ocean of stimulation. Everywhere you turn there are billboards, tv’s, music, text messages, videos, phone calls, the internet, and people calling out to you. Practicing awareness and attention is not easy in this environment, but it is more critical than ever. The world is becoming increasingly complex and dynamic; change is the new normal. Clear headed leadership, informed by awareness and directed by attention, is essential.

[1] See:

Ryan, Oliver. “How to Succeed in Business: Meditate – July 23, 2007.” Fortune, July 23, 2007. http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2007/07/23/100135590/index.htm?iid=sr-link1.

Hafenbrack, Andrew C., Zoe Kinias, and Sigal G. Barsade. “Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias.” Psychological Science 25, no. 2 (February 1, 2014): 369–76. doi:10.1177/0956797613503853.

Tom Goodell is President and founder of Linden Leadership. Since its inception in 1987, our mission has been to guide clients in creating cultures of high performance. Tom provides executive, management and team coaching; leadership training; and culture-building services in a wide variety of organizations, including entrepreneurial businesses, large corporations, government, education, and not-for-profit institutions. Tom’s areas of expertise are in establishing organizational cultures of high performance.

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