Tag Archives: mindfulness

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.

The Inner Theatre of Leadership

I began a quest ten years ago for the source of leadership. Despite the abundance of leadership theories and literature available, I did not have an answer to one key question: where does leadership originate? I was looking for answers that went beyond what we refer to as leadership skills, competencies and behaviors and reached deep into the very mind of the leader. I was reminded of a similar quest I had embarked upon a long time ago to the source of a great river. As I finally knelt by the source high up in the mountains after having followed the river upstream and watched all its myriad forms, I remember being struck by the utter simplicity of that source. As I began probing into the source of leadership, I was struck by a similar simplicity.  I was to call this source, our “self-ware”©.

Our self-ware is the internal program that drives everything we do as leaders: it shapes the information that we pick up, the way we process the information, the decisions we take, and the judgments we make. It is made up of a combination of three factors: our thoughts, our emotions, and our beliefs (assumptions). Together the three create a narrative that defines who we are. The role of our self-ware is to help us make sense of the world. It does that by an equation that is hardwired in all of us: perceive-interpret-respond. Everything begins with what and how we perceive, but without a dynamic awareness of our internal biases and conditioning, we are likely to make erroneous judgments. The second stage of interpretation is even more critical, for at this stage we come under pressure to prove our perception right. So not only is our perception prone to error, we are under pressure from a reward mechanism in the brain to reinforce our original perception.  The challenge for leaders is to not only be aware of their conditioning, they have to learn to overcome their own internal reward mechanism!

For this equation to work well, our self-ware must be in good shape. High-grade self-ware is made up of clear thinking that is made possible by intelligent emotions and supportive beliefs. Low-grade self-ware is made up of toxic or unclear thinking, emotions that get in the way, and disabling beliefs. The quality of the self-ware decides the mindset we use when we lead.

And what a difference that mindset makes! As an illustration I want to compare two one-time CEO’s who had to lead their respective companies in times of great crises: Tony Hayward, ex-CEO of BP and James Burke, one-time CEO of Johnson & Johnson. Both companies went through defining crises: BP with the Deep Water Horizon spill in 2010, and J&J with the Tylenol crisis in 1982. Tylenol was (and continues to be) one of the most popular over-the-counter medicines for aches and pains, accounting for 35% of the US analgesic market. Seven people died in Chicago after taking Tylenol. The amount of cyanide was 65 mg, more than 10,000 times what it takes to kill a human. It was proven that the tampering occurred after the medicine reached store shelves and J&J had nothing to do with it. Burke called for an emergency meeting in his room with his top team when the news broke. And then he asked the question that has achieved iconic status:  “What is the most ethical thing that we can now do as a company?” J & J did an immediate product recall, the first of its kind, which amounted to a loss of $100 million. All advertisement was halted. Later they went back to the drawing board and re-designed their packaging system, developing the first tamper proof caplets. Today the J&J handling of the crisis continues to be a bench-mark case study in crisis leadership in leading business schools.

On the other hand, BP’s handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico draws derision and scorn. It began with BP denying there was an oil spill once CNN broke the news of the crisis. This was followed by the response that very quickly went on to achieve infamous status: “It is only a small spill in a very large ocean”. The mishandling of the crisis reached a crescendo with Tony Hayward speaking at an American Press Conference where he said, “I’d like my life back”. Buckling under the stress of the situation, besieged by an internal culture of complacency, Tony Hayward was unable to operate from a mindset in which he could lead his organization out of crisis.

To ask the question that Burke did, in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, took presence of mind and calmness. More importantly, it was about retaining focus on the issues that mattered, making sure that all distracting thoughts and emotions were put away. Burke’s self-ware was working optimally allowing him to operate at a mindset in which he could respond to the situation in a state of mindfulness about the greater purpose of his company.