When we talk about the need for greater focus, it's easy to assume what we mean is our ability to pay attention and manage distractions. This is true but it is only part of the story. Being an effective leader requires a more complete focus: focus on the desired results, focus on the people around you and focus on what's going on in the world at large.

Daniel Goleman, author of Focus, summarises these in an HBR article where he discusses how this triad of focus assists leaders to command the full range of their attention.

“A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided,” Goleman writes.

In times of emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first

Self-awareness of where we are directing our attention allows us to notice when we are distracted by our thoughts and associated feelings. Since we spend around 47% of our waking time thinking about something other than what we're doing, our propensity for mind-wandering can be turned into something useful by choosing to consciously think about our thinking. Taking time out to think more deeply, to reflect and consider is a powerful way of checking that plans and strategies are on track to achieve the desired outcomes.

Switching to default mode allows the spotlight of attention to include others

Choosing to uncouple from focus allows the brain to switch to using the default mode network where, in addition to self-reflection, we become more aware of the emotional state of those around us. This promotes social understanding and empathy.

A 2009 survey of 60,000 leaders by Zenger and Folkman revealed that maintaining a single-minded focus on either results or people alone wasn't perceived by employees the mark of a great leader. Combining the two saw the result jump from 14% and 12% respectively to a significant level of 72% leadership effectiveness.

David Rock from The Neuroleadership Institute and the Management Research Group took this one stage further, analysing what percentage of managers could be considered to be in the top 33% of performers as measured by this dual capability. He found it to be a mere 0.77%.

However the opportunity to improve leadership effectiveness using the recent findings from brain science is readily available and includes:

  1. Self-reflection

    Allocate time to uncouple from focus during exercise, meditation or quiet time alone with your thoughts.

  2. Deliberate focus

    Apply focus to the task of the moment by giving it your complete and undivided attention. This requires eliminating or reducing the possibility of interruption from technology or people. We are not designed for long-term focus. Focusing hard in shorter chunks of time, up to 45 to 60 minutes, boosts efficiency by conserving cognitive energy.

  3. Broaden your world-view

    Listening and observing allows you to be more receptive to new ideas, to hear what's worrying people and subsequently make the best decision in a given situation.

  4. Take time out to spend in different environments

    Cross-pollination of thoughts is enhanced when we are in a green space (surrounded by nature) or a blue space (close to water), where the mind can feel more relaxed.

  5. Last but not least, focus on having fun and enjoying yourself

    It's a great way to enhance connection, reduce stress and boost your cognitive prowess.