One of the cruel ironies of our time is that with such incredible access to information, many leaders are drowning in data and bogging down in complexity. They drink through a fire hose of reports, analytics, blogs, and tweets. Mobile devices blessedly update and painfully distract. At some point, the choices become debilitating, especially with the clamor for near-instant responses to just about everything. For leaders, it is one of the mega-challenges of our time.
This challenge is also a great opportunity. For those up to the task, it can be a powerful source of competitive advantage, one that comes from focus—exceptional, sustained focus in the face of swirling distractions. How can leaders maintain exceptional focus?
* Smart Choices. First, leaders must choose wisely what to focus on. They must judge the context of the situation well enough to decide what to drill down on and what to ignore as background noise. Such judgment improves with experience, and new leaders are wise to seek input from trusted colleagues.
* Discipline. Next, leaders must commit to a working rhythm that brooks no interruptions at certain times. There are countless demands on your time and forces seeking to pull you away. It’s here that many leaders blow it, chasing distractions that suck their time and energy.
“Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action: this framework captures much of what separates greatness from mediocrity.”
-Jim Collins, Good to Great
* Redirection. Even the most focused leaders run into trouble. Stuff happens. Murphy’s Law governs. In the words of boxing legend Mike Tyson, “everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” So leaders must be able to redirect. Borrowing a principle from judo, they must be able to soften the blow of the unexpected crisis and re-channel the energy toward the top priorities.
“I am more and more convinced that our happiness or our unhappiness depends far more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.”
-Karl Wilhelm Von Humboldt
* Conviction. Leaders must summon the courage to say “no”—over and over, even to good leads and exciting opportunities. Leaders must address those who distract from top priorities. Conviction risks being unpopular and being misunderstood, all in service of the larger aim.
“To be great is to be misunderstood.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
* Purpose. Leaders are bound to encounter pain. It’s the price of leading. Leaders must focus themselves and their organizations on something worthy of their efforts and suffering. We advocate a focus on building an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization—the three Es of “triple crown leadership.” A worthy purpose summons exceptional focus. Most organizations are lost in plans, initiatives, proposals, and reactions, all clouded by lack of a clear, worthy, and inspiring purpose.
* Off Button. Finally, energy gets depleted if it isn’t guarded. No human, no matter how healthy and driven, can always be “on.” Great leadership requires knowing when to switch off. To renew. To find sanctuary. To maintain health, relationships, and perspective. When leaders then plug back in, they have more energy and spirit to summon and maintain that exceptional focus.
None of this is rocket science. But few leaders actually pull it off. Are you one of them?
Bob and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards), based on interviews with 61 organizations in 11 countries.