Attention Deficit Leadership

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.

How consistent is your personal narrative?



Two highly successful C-suite executives worked in the same company, let’s call them X and Y. Both were corporate stars and had risen to the very top of their professions. The company’s Board, the analysts and customers all thought they were both terrific. They each could confidently discuss their successful careers and leadership abilities. But as they settled into their top roles one difference became very clear.


Whenever something would go wrong or when there was an urgent issue to be addressed, other executives in the company would say, “Lets go tell X”. But when it came to Y, the question would turn to, “How should we tell Y?” The impact of this difference was overwhelming. X got the straight story quickly and was able to make fast, clear decisions. Y got a version of the truth. He had to sift through several conversations before having a complete picture and was never sure if he had the whole story. His decisions and actions came slower and he often had to hedge.


Why did this happen?   As leaders, our conversations, actions and behaviors are always in the spotlight, especially in this new world dominated by social media where everything is transparent and anyone and everyone has a point of view to be shared. Over time our conversations, actions and behaviors become the story of our leadership, our own “Personal Leadership Narrative”. The consistency of our narrative over time and the way others tell and retell our story, powerfully shapes the impact we have on others as leaders.


The stories that people told about X were heroic and consistent. They were stories of how she resolved internal differences, saved customer accounts and brought fiscal discipline. In each story there were common themes in terms of style and values. In the stories people told about Y, there were no recurring themes. The stories were told for surprise value – “that’s how he did it that time, but them let me tell you about this other time…


If your narrative is clear, if others have a reasonable understanding of how you are likely to react to a situation, they will believe they understand the “real” you. Once this happens the odds are very good that they will interact with you in a consistent, reliable way.


On the other hand if your leadership story does not allow others to see consistent themes, your narrative will become one of unreliability. No one will be sure of the “real you”. Each interaction will be a carefully staged test with you as the unpredictable variable…”be careful, you just don’t know how Y will react”.


In the new world of deep interconnectivity, what my author and I call the Social Age, leaders are confronted with challenges that constantly test “who they are” while making each of these tests public with everyone able to comment. In our research we located five areas that define “who we are” and that shape our personal narrative: 1. Mindfulness – being fully present in the moment while being aware of other critical aspects of the immediate situation; 2. Proactivity – seeing yourself as able to influence the events around you and then taking action, even in the face of ambiguity and contradiction; 3. Authenticity – creating positive momentum through broad inclusion, emotional engagement and conveying a sense of organizational purpose; 4. Openness – finding connections within complex situations, using multiple models to frame situations and make decisions and conveying to others your personal sense of purpose; 5. Social Scalability – recognizing and acting on the realities of today’s social/digital nature of communication where a leader needs to communicate simultaneously to one person, one group and every group at once.


Your leadership narrative is uniquely yours. There is no one right way to lead in these five areas. Rather, they are aspects of who you are as a person. Thriving as a leader in the Social Age means taking a good look at your self and understanding how you are most productive in each of these five areas.


Taking a hard look at your own leadership narrative allows you to accomplish two important things. First, it gives you the opportunity to bring your autobiography (the stories you tell about yourself), and your biography (the stories others tell about you), into alignment. This alignment is the road to consistency and to developing a foundation of personal authenticity needed to succeed as a leader especially in the Social Age.