Leadership is about Attention

Leading with Attention

In August 2020 I had the opportunity to deliver an interactive virtual workshop for Dr. Anita Nowak’s Leadership class at McGill University in the Desautels Faculty of Management.

About 20 undergraduate students from various majors participated with career interests including management consulting, board management, diversity & inclusion, finance, sustainability, strategic management and business advising.

When asked about issues hindering their ability to focus these days, responses included:

  • “I am reactive and distracted. Time and resources are wasted.”
  • “I have constant stress. The hidden voice of fear, judgement and cynicism are there.”
  • “I can’t focus”.
  • “I feel disconnected.”
  • “I have burnout.”
  • “I have an unbalanced portfolio of work and experience analysis paralysis.”

Digital overwhelm and distraction were with us before the pandemic. Screens had already become an extension of our brains. Students of leadership recognize this is an ongoing problem in themselves and in the teams and organizations they will eventually lead.

Focus is a Skill

We talked about focus as a skill that can be learned. We collectively recognized that none of us had ever had formal training in how to focus, not in school, nor in university, nor in the workplace.

I introduced a simple focusing exercise called “50 Snaps”, which is taught in many U.S. elementary schools. You can do this any time if you need a break from sitting. Stand on one leg, hold out one arm in front of you, then snap your fingers 50 times. Close your eyes if this is too easy.

Students shared that their attention was directed to snapping, counting and balancing. In other words, no one was daydreaming and thinking about their to do lists!

Imagine if we could direct our focus in this way for several hours a day?

5 Elements Influencing Attention

I introduced the 5 elements influencing our attention to this group of future leaders. These are:

  1. Focus
  2. Culture
  3. Body Wisdom
  4. Tools
  5. Environment

Participants were engaged via interactive exercises and generative dialogue around their current state felt experience in relation to the five elements. Some insights which arose from the class included:

1. Focus

Many students have the goal to do up to 28 hours of undistracted, focused work per week. It is challenging to accept that the average person can stay truly focused for only about 2 hours in one day! People who have trained themselves to focus better can do up to 4 hours of deep work per day. (I recommend the book Deep Work by Cal Newport for more information on the topic.)

2. Culture

Students had discussions on how team culture influences their ability to stay focused. Aspects of culture included team values, mindsets, behaviours, and alignment on purpose. We talked about the importance of adopting a new maxim, “Attention is our most valuable asset.”

3. Body Wisdom

The idea of the body mind connection was not new. However, the importance of balancing intelligence and wisdom in a team in order to foster innovation was different. Lego Serious Play, Social Presencing Theatre, the Empathy Toy and Agile games are examples of body wisdom practices which get us out of our heads and into our bodies for new insights. Not only do these practices improve innovation, but they have the added benefit of increasing creativity, wellbeing and empathy. Students commented that they were lucky to learn about such things from forward thinking professors like Dr. Anita Nowak.

The Empathy Toy, photo 21 Toys

4. Tools

One of the easiest ways to get back attention is by using digital tools intentionally. Most of the students shared that they get 10-20 notifications per hour. One student has 150!. A University of California @ Irvine research study shows that it takes 23 minutes to get back to a task after an interruption. This was eye-opening. We also discussed the importance of having the right metrics and agreements in place to track wellbeing, effectiveness and innovation in order to understand how well a team is cultivating and protecting attention.

Photo Craig Garner

5. Environment

Finally, participants reflected on the importance of physical and virtual workspace design and its impact on their ability to focus. This included how both physical and virtual meetings can either be a big waste of time or be effectively facilitated for inclusion and generative dialogue. The topic of psychological safety and “holding space” for everyone to feel comfortable enough to participate was a great area of interest in this class.