One of the primary tasks of leadership is to direct attention. But to do that effectively, leaders must learn to focus their own attention. Recent neuroscience research shows that human beings focus in many ways and draw on different neural pathways for different purposes. These modes of attention are often grouped into three broad categories — focusing on yourself, focusing on others and focusing on the wider world. Any effective leader must cultivate this triad of awareness in the proper balance, because a failure to focus inward leaves one rudderless, a failure to focus on others renders one clueless and a failure to focus outward may get one blindsided. On the positive side, engendering a more thorough understanding of how to focus on the wider world can improve a leader’s ability to devise strategy, innovate and manage their organizations.
Leaders must also exercise self-control, or more accurately “cognitive control.” That is the scientific term for putting one’s attention where one wants it and keeping it there in the face of temptation to wander. Cognitive control enables executives to pursue an objective despite distractions and setbacks. Good cognitive control can be seen in leaders who stay calm in a crisis, keep their own agitation in check and recover well from defeat. They are fairly easy to recognize, as they are the ones whose opinions carry the most weight. They are also the ones other people want to work with. The article’s author concludes: “If great leadership were a paint-by-numbers exercise, great leaders would be more common.”
Harvard Business Review (12/13) Goleman, David