In my last post, I discussed the difficulty of staying in the moment. In this post, I want to talk about ways to build a vital ingredient of leadership: focus.
When I’m challenged to pay attention—both to the little things, and to the person in front of me—I remember what the Buddha said about happiness.
“There are two rules to happiness,” the master said. “The first rule is pay attention to the matter at hand. The second rule is to repeat the first rule 10,000 times.”
The Buddha’s comments bear on an often ignored but vitally important aspect of leadership communications: Full attention to the matter at hand.
Such full focus isn’t easy to muster in a world where our iPhones, BlackBerries, and laptops incessantly vie for our attention.
And it’s particularly challenging for leaders, who have a thousand things to do at any one minute in the day.
I once counseled a promising leader who was sent to me because he was, in effect, obsessed with multitasking. “He’ll come in, flop in his chair, pull out his BlackBerry and then give the meeting about half his attention,” the boss said. “He’s sending all the wrong signals to the team.”
Over the course of several months—and thanks to some very hard work on his part—we managed to replace bad, distracted habits with the habit of undivided attention to what people were saying. He quickly re-established respect with the team.
How do leaders develop focus? Here are five tried-and-true steps I’ve used with ClearPoint clients:
1) Turn your devices off—When you’re in an important meeting or working with someone one-on-one, literally turn off the smartphone and computer (OK, I’ll accept closing the screen). You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to stay focused when there are no beeps, bongs, or whooshes interrupting you.
2) Shut up—I know this sounds simple, but learn to stop talking so much. As one CEO said, “I didn’t realize what I was missing until I stopped interrupting” (interrupting, by the way, is rated the worst managerial behavior in survey after survey).
3) Shut down—The Buddhists say call our brain “a chattering monkey” that tries to distract us every step of the way. Practice ignoring the hundreds of thoughts that are racing through your mind.
4) Listen to understand, not to respond—Let’s admit it: We’re all tempted to finish off a person’s thoughts in order to contribute our own. Learn to ignore that temptation and give whoever’s talking your full focus—with your ears, your mind, and your physical presence (good eye contact, frequent head nods, etc.)
5) Clarify what’s being said—That means not only asking good questions, but being sure you have gotten the meaning right. Ask, “What’s the bottom line here?,” or repeat what you’re hearing in your own words. You’ll be surprised at how clarifying that exchange can be.
Change won’t happen overnight. Moving from distraction to full attention requires commitment and practice. In the end, though, you’ll learn more (after all, you’re not talking, are you?) and gain the respect of your team in the process as well.