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A primary task of leadership is to direct attention

Christian Fernsby |
To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention, Daniel Goleman writes.

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Focusing on yourself, focusing on others, and focusing on the wider picture sheds new light on the practice of many essential leadership skills.

Leaders who heed their inner voices can draw on more resources to make better decisions and connect with their authentic selves.

Hearing your inner voice is a matter of paying careful attention to internal physiological signals.

These subtle cues are monitored by the insula, which is tucked behind the frontal lobes of the brain.

Attention given to any part of the body amps up the insula’s sensitivity to that part.

Tune in to your heartbeat, and the insula activates more neurons in that circuitry.

How well people can sense their heartbeats has, in fact, become a standard way to measure their self awareness.

Gut feelings are messages from the insula and the amygdala, which the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, of the University of Southern California, calls somatic markers.

Those messages are sensations that something “feels” right or wrong.

Somatic markers simplify decision making by guiding our attention toward better options.

The most successful traders (whose annual income averaged £500,000) were neither the ones who relied entirely on analytics nor the ones who just went with their guts.

They focused on a full range of emotions, which they used to judge the value of their intuition.

When they suffered losses, they acknowledged their anxiety, became more cautious, and took fewer risks.

The least successful traders (whose income averaged only £100,000) tended to ignore their anxiety and keep going with their guts.

Because they failed to heed a wider array of internal signals, they were misled.

The word “attention” comes from the Latin attendere, meaning “to reach toward.” This is a perfect definition of focus on others.

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.

People who lack social sensitivity are easy to spot.

Social sensitivity appears to be related to cognitive empathy.

Cognitively empathic executives do better at overseas assignments, for instance, presumably because they quickly pick up implicit norms and learn the unique mental models of a new culture.

Alarmingly, research suggests that as people rise through the ranks and gain power, their ability to perceive and maintain personal connections tends to suffer a sort of psychic attrition.

In studying encounters between people of varying status, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at Berkeley, has found that higher ranking individuals consistently focus their gaze less on lower ranking people and are more likely to interrupt or to monopolize the conversation.

Leaders with a strong outward focus are not only good listeners but also good questioners.

They are visionaries who can sense the far flung consequences of local decisions and imagine how the choices they make today will play out in the future.

They are open to the surprising ways in which seemingly unrelated data can inform their central interests.

In an era when almost everyone has access to the same information, new value arises from putting ideas together in novel ways and asking smart questions that open up untapped potential.

If people are given a quick view of a photo of lots of dots and asked to guess how many there are, the strong systems thinkers in the group tend to make the best estimates.

But in a small but significant number of people, a strong systems awareness is coupled with an empathy deficit a blind spot for what other people are thinking and feeling and for reading social situations.

For that reason, although people with a superior systems understanding are organizational assets, they are not necessarily effective leaders.

An executive at one bank explained that it has created a separate career ladder for systems analysts so that they can progress in status and salary on the basis of their systems smarts alone.

That way, the bank can consult them as needed while recruiting leaders from a different pool one containing people with emotional intelligence.

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