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Leadership Thought #419 – The Problem of Attention Deficit Leadership

April 5, 2016

Free Man Sitting in Black Leather Chair Near Window Stock Photo

I have the good fortune to spend a significant amount of time with CEOs and business owners. I may be one of the few people who will spend a full day with them on a regular basis. It’s always fascinating to watch how they cope with a long meeting. For some of them, it is considerable work to stay in one place and focus on one issue for any extended period. They get jittery, shift in their seats, continually check their cell phone or laptop, and quickly jump into action any time there is a break. They suffer from some sort of attention deficit syndrome. While I understand this is how many of them are naturally wired, I also notice the most successful of my clients and colleagues tend to be able to hold their focus the longest. The best leaders can be fully in the moment of whatever they are doing. When they commit their time and energy to something, they commit fully.

Leaders have far too many tools to distract them these days. It’s easy to default to hyperactivity mode where action and movement trumps everything else. For example, it is impossible to properly listen to someone or fully understand a situation if you are constantly checking in and out of the conversation or thinking about what else you could or should be doing. It worries me that as business and life get increasingly complex, our leaders are losing their capacity to focus and think. Often, there isn’t a simple answer or quick fix to issues that end up at the desk of the chief decision-maker. While it has become popular these days to espouse the benefits of learning by failing, some failures are hard to recover from (and completely unnecessary). You can’t just plough forward and believe that courage, confidence, speed, and resilience are the primary secrets to success. The quality of your thinking, application of your experience, soundness of your judgment, and consistency of your efforts are equally important.

I don’t claim to understand all the psychosocial factors that have led us to this point. Clearly, something is going on in a society where barely a day passes that I do not hear from someone that they or someone they know has ADHD. You all see evidence in Washington and Wall Street that leaders cannot get their heads wrapped around the big critical issues and, instead, get distracted by short-term thinking and political competitiveness. Instead of focusing on the greater good through addressing difficult challenges and considering the potential long-term consequences of their actions, it’s all about the next news cycle or quarterly report. Moreover, watching the news has become increasingly frustrating as the broadcasters jump from topic to topic in a disconnected way with no real depth of coverage or understanding of the topic they are presenting. If often feels like we are drinking from an informational fire hose at full blast in hope of quenching our thirst (which never works).

My advice to you is to slow it down, pay attention and be fully in the moment of whatever you are doing. In addition, take the time to fully grasp an issue before rushing to judgment. Let strategy drive tactics, not the other way around. Listen more intentionally and talk less. Prioritize your activities and focus on what is most important. Take your commitments seriously and lead by example in this regard. The world needs more leaders who are attentive, focused thinkers, not just doers. As a society, we need to address the problem of attention-deficit leadership before it is too late.