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3 February 2018

Paying Attention

Written by
Kathrin O'Sullivan

People often ask me about my favorite leadership model, and my learnings over the years about what makes leaders successful. Many books have been written on this topic, and entering “leadership model” yields over six million results on Google search. A number that makes my head spin.

We seem to be on a constant quest to find the holy grail of leadership – what is the tried and tested model that we know works, and what are some cutting edge ingredients to ensure success in the future? What’s the latest research, and how can we translate it into something practical that will be useful in the real world?

I don’t think there is a silver bullet. Yet, over the past 10 years, I have observed four foundational principles in all great leaders that I’ve worked with. They are paying attention, listening deeply, speaking truthfully, and acting compassionately.

In theory, most people know about these principles and agree on their value. Yet putting them into practice is a different story. They seem basic, like we’ve been doing them for years, but have we really? Probably not, because they are difficult to remember in the moment. They require courage. And they often seem at odds with some of our reactive tendencies that show up under stress. And tell me a work week in which you didn’t get stressed at least once?

In this blog, I’d like to take a closer look at the first principle, paying attention. Why is it so important?

To most leaders, the answer is obvious. We live in a world of constant flux, and we find ourselves simultaneously operating in many different complex situations. There is no playbook on how to get through any given day. It’s the job of the leader to anticipate the future, to make sure the organization delivers cutting-edge products and services, to keep customers and shareholders happy, to set up teams for success, and a million other things, all while making it look effortless. It’s a tough job. If you don’t know how to pay attention, you are going to be caught off guard. One mental model in organizations is that if you look like you don’t have everything under control, you’re not a good leader. Hence, you need to be as alert as you can.

Yet, it’s impossible to pay attention to everything that’s within our remit. There is just too much coming at us at any given time, and the more responsibility we take on, the more overwhelmed we seem to get.

So what are you paying attention to? Especially when things get difficult?

The harsh reality is that almost every time I talk to a client, they seem to be in the middle of a “fire drill”  brought on by something unexpected. In such a crisis, our inner alarm system goes on red alert. We tell ourselves we should have seen this coming. Our instant reflex is to jump to action and fix the problem. Maybe we blame others who didn’t do their job right. At the very least, they should have warned us in advance. We feel the heavy burden of one more thing that contributes to our complete sense of overwhelm. Is this the day when we are going to lose our credibility? When we will be found out? When our job is on the line? You see where this is leading. Our attention immediately goes to the potential threat and often triggers a whole line of thought that we may or may not be aware of. From “here’s an unexpected turn of events” to “I’m going to lose my job and nobody will ever hire me again”. This is how we’ve been wired for millennia – the brain scans for threats to secure survival. Autopilot kicks in. What happens next? Are you dropping everything else and rush to solve the problem? Are you barking out orders at the possible expense of relationships? Are you blaming yourself for not having seen this coming?  How does autopilot show up for you? Much of our reactive behavior is not helpful in the moment, and we often regret it soon after.

In order to be able to direct attention to other important data sources that we tend to ignore in crisis, it is helpful to practice interrupting our reactivity to triggers. Much has been written about emotional regulation, and how we can dissolve patterns with practice. One of my favorites is pausing and taking three deep breaths. It’s easy to do and very impactful. It helps open up space to pay attention to what else is here, so I can see a fuller picture. It is an effective practice to calm the nervous system and make me feel more sane and grounded in these crazy times. Try it now. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths into your belly. What has shifted for you?

Zooming out and letting our attention take in the bigger picture includes remembering our motivations and values. Who do you want to be as a leader? What do you want to stand for? And how do you translate that into action? It’s easier to practice this when not under stress. And like anything – the more we rehearse when it’s easy, the easier it will get when circumstances become difficult. So start now. Who do you choose to be? How do you want to show up? What’s one thing you can try to do differently today to be more congruent with what really matters to you?

Paying attention to our relationships is another important component. The universe is a matrix of relationships, and nothing gets done without them. In crisis, we need relationships. Are you a leader who regularly empowers people, so that when things get hard, they rally around you and do the seemingly impossible to get business back on track? Or are you a leader who values the power and efficiency of getting things done alone? Has your team a tendency to collapse in crisis? We can learn a lot from paying extra attention to how we relate to others and how they relate to us. We could also talk to someone we trust and learn from them how they experience us at our best, and what’s different when we show up under pressure. It’s an invitation to just take it all in and not judge it as good or bad. It may give us valuable information and an incentive to experiment with some new approaches.

Another component worth paying attention to is our organization’s mission and the greater good. What is our primary motivator?  Achieving our and our team’s quarterly goals, or helping our organization thrive now AND in the future? I have seen so many leaders (including myself) focus on over-achieving on a quarterly basis at the expense of doing the work that matters to lay the foundations for the future. Our personal short term success doesn’t guarantee the company will be doing great in five years from now. What do we need to pay attention to in order to optimize for the future? My guess is not necessarily the problem we think we should solve right now. It may be helpful to reflect on how much the current issue will matter next week, at the end of the quarter, next year, and in five years. Paying attention to a longer time horizon can enable a healthy shift in perspective.

And – do you ever pay attention to the message the latest fire drill has for you? We are often so caught up in fixing or solving the problem that we forget to take a closer look at the patterns in the system that are bringing short term crises forward. What wants to happen? Why is it difficult, and why is the same problem repeating itself, even though our smartest people have been working on it for a while now? What if we looked at the system with fresh eyes and asked different questions? What are some factors we haven’t considered before? What other forces are at play? And how could we intervene differently to learn more about the dynamics of the system we’re in?

So, next time you find yourself in crisis, and you are tempted to jump to action immediately, here’s an invitation to remember that you are much bigger than your reactive behaviors. See if you can resist the urge of instant problem solving. Let go of focusing exclusively on fixing the issue. Pay attention to your inner state. See if you can breathe a little deeper and soften some of the tension in your body. Then invite the bigger picture in. Remind yourself of who you really are and what you want to create. Observe what wants to happen in your environment and what you can learn from it. And maybe you will find that what seemed like a huge fire drill five minutes ago is actually not such a big deal. Especially compared to the fire inside of you that has the power to inspire many people, make important things happen, and contribute significantly to long term success.

2 thoughts on “Paying Attention”

  1. Melissa Lukin says:

    This is SO good, Kathrin. So accessible, grounded in experience, well written and helpful! Thank you!

  2. Bill Tipton says:

    This in an excellent and timely read on effective leadership especially appropriate in today’s often hectic and fast-paced business environment.

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