HomeTalentLeadership DevelopmentAre you paying attention? Why leaders must sharpen their focus to succeed in the new future

Are you paying attention? Why leaders must sharpen their focus to succeed in the new future

  • 5 Min Read

The relentless demands of performing for today and transforming for tomorrow mean that leaders are grappling with an accelerated phase of workforce and industry change.

HRD Thought Leader Terence Mauri sets out why leadership attention is crucial in a world of overload, distraction and burnout.

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If there’s one piece of advice for leaders this year, it’s to remember that data is not the new oil. Instead, attention is. Attention to context-setting, pace-setting and direction-setting. Attention to learning and un-learning. Attention to shaping a bold future and making things happen.

In this new article, we explore why a leader’s attention, pace and mindset must stay sharp under constant pressure from navigating the future of work and leading and embracing perpetual transformation.

Why is leadership attention important?

Attention is the psychological tool we use to tune out irrelevant information. It allows us to prioritise and focus on the important things. At work, this is even more important. 

Research at Hack Future Lab shows that attention – particularly leadership attention – has been blown up into millions of fragmented pixels, with accelerants such as Covid-19 and the changing nature of work, the workplace and the workforce.

Some key findings are:

  • 93 percent believe their leadership attention is key to growth, but only 27 percent believe it’s a strength
  • 68 percent report either themselves or their teams are at risk of work overload 
  • 63 percent highlight a productivity paradox during the pandemic where performance increased but wellbeing dropped
  • 56 percent believe they spend more time on shallow work than deep work
  • 41 percent can link decision making to enterprise value and strategy 
  • 20 percent excel at decision making 

The leadership tax

The Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon said: ‘Too much information leads to a poverty of attention. We pay a leadership tax every time our attention is hijacked by a pointless meeting or we schedule back-to-back Zoom calls with no ‘white space’ in the day for reflecting and refuelling. This means shallow impact rather than deep impact and busy work rather than our boldest work.

The #1 takeaway is that leaders are tired. Zoom fatigue. Meeting’s fatigue. Collaboration fatigue. Solution fatigue. Brain fog. 

With over 41 trillion dollars of enterprise, value is at risk and 93 percent of leaders expect significant industry disruption over the next five years. Leadership attention has become a leader’s call-to-action challenge this year. 

Competitive advantage is fading away faster than at any time in recent history. Just look at the floundering fortunes of indoor cycling upstart Peloton (share price down nearly 80 percent in the last 12 months). Now, the half-life of a company has shrunk to one year or less and reimagination is the new execution. 

To stay on top, leaders must focus on three imperatives to cut through the noise and focus on what matters:

  • Who we are: Strengthen identity, belonging and put purpose to work 
  • How we decide: Make high quality, high-velocity decisions; not taking a risk is a risk
  • How we grow:  Prioritise long-term vitality, reimagination and sustainable growth

So, what can you do differently today to help your organisation protect, amplify and sustain the highest return on attention that is key for a growth-led, daring and resilient future?

1 – Focus on velocity, not speed

The reason is simple. Speed is the time rate at which you’re moving along a path, while velocity is the rate and direction, you’re heading in. Speed without aligned direction can lead to strategy or culture drift and waste precious talent and resources.

2 – Fight complexity with simplicity

When you run into a problem you can’t solve, don’t make it smaller, make it bigger. Today’s challenges can’t be solved with yesterday’s thinking. Thinking small and being an incrementalist depletes your ambition and energy. You’ll ignite purpose and spark new ideas and fresh perspectives when you embrace the urgency and scale of your biggest challenges.

3 – Have meetings-free days

It sounds obvious, but you’re having too many meetings! Hack Future Lab’s research highlights that the number of back-to-back meetings has doubled since the Pandemic and are often scheduled with no breaks in between. Too many wasteful meetings lead to a higher cognitive and leadership tax. Having a meetings-free day increases autonomy, engagement, focus and resilience by over 3X.

4 – Have a ‘no’ strategy

Hack Future Lab’s research highlights that 83% of leaders are drowning in too many priorities and over-commitments. This erodes attention and doubles the risk of shallow work (low contribution) versus deep work (high contribution). A ‘no’ strategy is one of the best forms of optimisation and a powerful way to protect attention. It’s a clarifier, a simplifier and a multiplier of ROI. Not return on investment. Return on Intelligence.

Pay attention to attention

Success breeds success, but success can corrupt success. It’s difficult to stay ahead of change without meta-awareness and committed attention to your inner world (blind spots, reflection, learning) and outer world (people, risks, growth). 

Leaders can get trapped in their optimism bubbles. To paraphrase psychologist Daniel Kahneman ‘we become blind to our blindness’ and in particular, change blindness (the inability to anticipate or react to change). 

Hack Future Lab’s research shows that leaders with heightened levels of inner attention and outer attention are significantly better at embracing humility to their blind spots and biases. They are also more proficient in spotting risks before they become emergencies and seizing new paths to growth. 

Leading a future that is bold and growth-led is not about time. It’s about deliberate and thoughtful attention to yourself, others and the world around you. It leads to empathy, more inclusivity and more joy at work. Attention is a limited resource and the rarest and purest form of generosity a leader can give in a world of overload. Are you ready to pay attention to attention?

Terence Mauri is the founder of Hack Future Lab, a global management think tank and a leading management thinker on leadership, disruption and change. He has been described as ‘an outspoken and influential thinker on the future of leadership’ by Thinkers50. His latest book The 3D Leader: Take your leadership to the next dimension is out now. 

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