The Elite Leader's Power of Attention

by Rob McNamara and Pouria Montazeri

One of the elite leader's unique qualities is their skillful capacity and flexibility to manage attention in the face of complex and uncertain environments.

Whether an elite leader is operating in hospitals or boardrooms, implementing the strategic plans on a battlefield, or outmaneuvering an opposing team in athletics, attention remains a fundamental asset.

Attention is the process that shapes the direction of the flow of energy and information. It is a critical component of performance. The slightest deviations can result in costly consequences. Subtle changes in our attention can turn success to failure, performance excellence to mediocrity, clarity to confusion, alignment to misalignment, and flow into stagnation. When misapplications of attention are repeated, it fosters wasted and misaligned efforts.

Attention and Leadership

Attention has enormous power and influence. We are our attention. One's attention does not end with oneself. In leadership, one is leading more than just herself. Where and how the attention moves have an enormous power to shape, moment by moment, that which is to be said and done next.

Furthermore, this is noticed and evaluated by the teams, institutions, communities, and nations that are being led. Invariably, leadership is measured by the leader's ability to galvanize, move, and shape people's attention toward greater possibilities. The leader's influence, or lack thereof, is innately evident in the ways people think, the images they possess, and the visions they see as they peer into the future.

Awareness, Attention, Experience

In the diagram above, awareness is at the core, hub of experience. It is like a sun that has the potential to shine in 360-degrees. The spokes connecting the hub to the rim are the kinds of attention.

There are two kinds of attention: Exogenous and Endogenous,

Exogenous attention is when something on the rim, like a phone call, someone calling our name, or a loud sound gets our attention. Thus the arrow of attention goes from the rim toward the hub of awareness. This is a bit involuntarily. Most people go about their days being bombarded by their exogenous attention.

Endogenous attention is when with intention, we choose to focus on a particular thing on the rim, like our team members' body gestures during a meeting or paying close attention, through deep listening, to a team member's sharing. This is conscious, focal, and voluntarily attention. This kind of attention makes an elite leader.

In short, awareness provides us to have choices in how we behave. Choices inform the direction of our attention. Where attention goes energy flows. Through such focal (conscious) attention, we create the possibility of choice and flexibility. Thus we can select what to pay attention to, sustain that attention, and then switch attention as needed.

Qualities of Attention

There are many qualities of attention; however, one of the main attributes vital to your performance is open attention. This is a broad panoramic view that enhances understanding and your ability to navigate effectively. We can contrast open attention with another quality: concentrated attention. The former sees the whole all at once, the latter dials in on a particular part with great focus.

An elite leader's ability to oscillate between these two qualities of attention allows her to survey the landscape of any situation and focus in on that which needs attention.

That which we give our attention to, coupled with the quality of attention we bring to it, influences our actions, behavior, orientation, sense-making, and the desired outcomes. The direction of our attention informs our behavior. Our behavior informs our sense-making mechanism. Thus, the quality of attention that is brought to any situation influences thinking and orientation and, in turn, thought, action, and orientation shape, inform, and direct attention.

Discernment is one of the vital tools for developing attention, which is often overlooked. An elite leader skillfully discerns where her attention should be focused on at any given moment. This requires having had cultivated the skill to sustain attention in a concentrated fashion.

Each moment is a choice point. We get to choose how to select and discern where to place and sustain our attention. The goal is to consistently make better choices as we direct and manage our attention. For leaders, leveraging attention and making better choices, is one of the most crucial tools in shaping the transitioning world into a better one over the next century and beyond. Thus, elite leadership can shape attention to invoke new possibilities, mobilize better social and cultural actions, and design more elegant civilization.

Consider the consequences when your attention tracks the wrong information during a meeting.

When attention tracks the wrong information during a meeting, efforts can quickly become misaligned. Wandering attention during a conversation or presentation erodes trust in the other or the team at large, detracting from the relationship's potential value creation. When attention is fixated on a past error in an inappropriate timely manner, the risk factors of making compounding mistakes increase exponentially. In every case, mismanaged attention hinders elite-level execution.

Starting Your Journey

A simple theoretical understanding of the concept of attention is not sufficient for being an elite leader. What is needed are significant skills in managing attention in ever more refined and useful ways. Enacting the best choices in what we are uniquely positioned and called to execute results from an elite leader excelling at deploying attention to yield superior results.

We have found the following inquiries to help start the journey of cultivating skillful attention. When it comes to you and your attention:

  • Can you enact the best choices that you are uniquely called to execute?

  • Can you manage the essential asset of attention to better align all of your actions to maximize your most meaningful value contributions?

  • Can you relentlessly pursue your best discernments, again and again, to place your own attention on what matters most?

  • And, can you be elite?

We encourage future elite leaders to take a sober look into the challenges operating against them, their teams, and the nations, institutions, and communities they lead before prematurely claiming "yes" to the above inquiries.

If we were to take an honest look at the contexts around us as playing fields for a moment, we would see that we are not operating on even or level playing fields. This is not a fair game. Regardless of the social status, power, wealth, privileges, and conventional securities we carry, it is clear that we are being compromised. The people around us are being undermined. Our advisors are being weakened. In one fashion or another, all of us are suffering from a crisis that almost no one notices.

Imagine that for a moment!

#deltadevelopmental #attention #eliteleadership

Rob McNamara is the Principal at Delta Developmental - McNamara provides mastery level training in developmental coaching, bringing academic rigor into pragmatic leadership coaching applications. He also specializes in bringing developmental tools to elite level athletes and coaches for supporting greater performance advantages. 

Rob is known for his big heart, embodied presence, and purpose-driven commitment to social justice, adult development, and education. 

Pouria Montazeri is the Executive Director / Associate / Coaching Coordinator at Delta Developmental - Pouria is an author, coach, instructor, and business strategist serving as the Executive Director for Delta Developmental’s leadership team and serves as the Coaching Coordinator overseeing Delta’s Executive Coaching programs. 

Pouria brings a wealth of expertise as an internationally award-winning film director, pioneering Rumi scholar, and contemplative practitioner with decades of experience helping organizations build strategies for branding and marketing for long-term customer enrollments.  

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