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"Always focus on the front windshield and not the rear view mirror." ? Colin Powell

Ah, focus. It seems that throughout the day this "focus" is what we strive for. We don't have the time to "focus" on this project, or the team needs to spend more time "focusing" on that goal. Effective leaders must be able to direct attention. But, if they hope to direct anyone else's attention, they must first learn how - and where - to focus their own.

The focused leader is one who is able to: focus inward on the "self," focus outward on others; and focus farther outward on the wider world.

These three areas work in concert, acting as something of a three-legged stool. Without equal balance between the three legs, the entire system collapses. Focusing inward is the foundation for building and growing emotional intelligence. Focusing on others puts that emotional intelligence into action and promotes a broader understanding of the wider world. When you understand the wider world, you can use that understanding to continue to develop your emotional intelligence.

A Little Bit Of Self-Awareness Goes A Long Way

Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, the hallmark of an exceptional leader. Getting in touch with your "inner self" or "inner voice" might seem a bit touchy-feely, but research has shown that feelings matter when it comes to success. British researchers recently studied professional traders at four London investment banks. According to their study, the most successful traders (defined as those who made roughly 500,000 per year) made decisions based on a mix of both hard data and "gut feelings." The least successful traders tended to focus solely on either data or their intuition.

There is real value in listening to your inner voice. Hopefully, you've been learning along your leadership journey and, as you have new experiences, suffer new failures, and enjoy new success, you tuck away tidbits that you can draw from in the future. When your inner voice nags at you, telling you something is very right or very wrong, it's worthwhile to listen to what that voice has to say.

The Focused Leader And The Empathy Triad

Do you know what separates good leaders from great leaders? The ability to focus on others and show empathy. Empathy is a necessary trait if you want to grow as a leader. However, we often think of empathy as one, very specific trait. In fact, there are three types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive empathy: This is the ability to understand someone else's perspective. This attribute is essential for managing your team.
  2. Emotional empathy: The ability to feel what someone else feels. This is effective when managing clients, mentoring and reading group dynamics.
  3. Empathetic concern: The ability to sense what someone needs from you. Similar to emotional empathy, this trait is important for close relationships.

Empathy tends to be an attribute that either comes very naturally, or must be worked at very hard. There are very few "somewhat empathetic" people. You either are, or are not. If you happen to be one of the people who struggles with empathy, the good news is that it can be learned - but it takes practice and patience with yourself. Over time, as you force yourself to focus on others, it will begin to take less effort.

Rekindling Curiosity Ignites Focus

Focusing on the wider world leads to greater understanding and sparks innovative ideas to solve problems around us. Leaders who focus on the wider world tend to be exceptional listeners, and part of becoming an exceptional listener is asking great questions. When we are naturally curious about a person or a subject, how do we learn more? We ask questions.

Children never fear asking questions, in fact, once some get started, they simply can't seem to stop. As adults, we lose some of that zest for questioning. We may fear asking "dumb" questions or annoying others, but we cannot hope to understand the world around us, nor can we hope to innovate new solutions to problems or grow as leaders, if we do not remain naturally curious.

Focusing on the wider world is what leads to innovation. In order to generate and sustain that focus, leaders must spend time reflecting on the world around them, and asking questions about that world. This can happen alone, but it can also happen as a group. Simple brainstorming sessions help keep a group focused on specific problems, issue and ideas, and often lead to innovations and solutions.

Gather a group, regularly, to brainstorm about the world around you: problems your customers have, issues with workflow in the company, trends you are seeing in the market, etc. The group may be your employees. It might be your peers. Regardless of who is there, ban criticism from the session. Everyone is allowed to speak, all ideas will be considered, and there is no such thing as a stupid question. When ideas are allowed to flow freely, creativity is sparked. People can feed off of each other, build off of one another's ideas, and ask even more probing questions that you hadn't thought of before. These questions help develop a focus on, and an understanding of, the wider world.

Effective leaders help focus their teams on specific priorities, and they do that without dictating or strong-arming. When you learn to focus on your inner voice, develop your empathy, and ask questions to understand the world around you, you will begin to have more influence over the focus of your team.


Larry Hart

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