Knowledge & Insight

Maintaining focus amidst the noise

Tue 16 March 2021

Directing and leading the attention of your people is of course a primary task for any leader, but to do so effectively, you have to learn to tightly focus your own attention. When most people think about ‘focusing’, they generally associate that action with consciously blocking out any distractions, and that’s certainly part of the exercise. But research in the field of neuroscience has revealed that true mental focus has multiple dimensions.

Focus on yourself

Self-awareness can often be an abstract concept, but at a practical level it’s really about tuning in and listening to your gut instinct. Yet that ‘instinct’ is often driven by high-level neuro function centred around the brain’s frontal lobes.  A growing number of successful leaders are learning to tune in to their own heartbeat, an exercise which stimulates neuron activity and enhances self-awareness, helping you appreciate external environment and enhance your awareness of the wider world.

So that gut feeling that tells you to make a particular decision doesn’t actually come from your gut, it’s really your brain utilising your expertise and experience and communicating with your consciousness on another level. Of course, no one’s gut instinct is foolproof, but recognising that it’s actually the output of logical processing means you should make time to listen to and analyse that instinct.

Focus on others

The ability to focus on others, and the needs of others, can bring great rewards. And executives who master this skill quickly learn to find common ground with colleagues and direct reports. They can empathise with their people, and as a result they earn greater respect and loyalty - they become more effective leaders. But for some, this can prove to be a perishable skill, because research suggests that as people rise through the ranks, this ability to form, nurture and maintain productive personal relationships can be eroded.

Neurologists have an explanation for this – that the release of oxytocin, which promotes a caring impulse, is tempered by a subconscious assessment of how we value another person’s wellbeing. For an executive, it’s important to find a balance between feelings of empathy, and controlling those feelings in order to facilitate cold commercial calculation.

Focus on strategy

Every senior executive must of course maintain a tight focus on strategy, yet successful strategy contains at least two distinct threads: i) how best to exploit the business’ existing advantage, ii) how to develop new advantages in order to remain competitive. Critical analysis and planning in each of these areas requires a very different approach, and researchers exploring the “science” of decision-making have discovered clear differences in our brains’ neural activity when focussing on exploitative and exploratory strategies.

Focussing on strategy encompasses two very different mental approaches, and switching between the two can’t happen at the flick of a switch. So despite intense pressure on their time, smart leaders should take time to reflect, because doing so will likely improve the quality of your decision-making  and enhance your ability to create innovative strategies that will empower your business to maintain and develop powerful new competitive advantages.

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