The Well-Focused Leader

Directing attention where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership. Below, Daniel Goleman considers how leadership hinges on capturing and directing the collective attention, and argues that new strategy means reorienting from business as usual to a fresh focus.


How Leaders Direct Attention

“Death by PowerPoint” refers to those endless, meandering presentations that the software seems to encourage. Those presentations can be painful when they reflect a lack of focused thinking, and a poor sense of what matters. One sign of the ability to pinpoint what’s salient is how someone answers the simple question, What’s your main point?

Directing attention where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership. Talent here lies in the ability to shift attention to the right place at the right time, sensing trends and emerging realities and seizing opportunities. But it’s not just the focus of a single strategic decision-maker that makes or breaks a company: it’s the entire array of attention bandwidth and dexterity among everyone.1

Sheer numbers of people make an organization’s cumulative attention far more distributable than an individual’s, with a division of labor in who pays attention to what. This multiple focus powers an organization’s attention capacity for reading and responding to complex systems.

Attention in organizations, as with individuals, has a limited capacity. Organizations, too, have to choose where to allocate attention, focusing on this, while ignoring that. An organization’s core functions—finance, marketing, human resources, and the like—describe how a particular group focuses.

Signs of what might be called organizational “attention deficit disorder” include making flawed decisions because of missing data, no time for reflection, trouble getting attention in the marketplace, and inability to focus when and where it matters.

Leadership itself hinges on effectively capturing and directing the collective attention. Leading attention requires these elements: first, focusing your own attention, then attracting and directing attention from others, and getting and keeping the attention of employees and peers, of customers or clients.

A well-focused leader can balance an inner focus on the climate and culture with other focus on the competitive landscape, and an outer focus on the larger realities that shape the environment the outfit operates in.

A leader’s field of attention—that is, the particular issues and goals she focuses on—guides the attention of those who follow her, whether or not the leader explicitly articulates them. People make their choices about where to focus based on their perception of what matters to leaders. This ripple effect gives leaders an extra load of responsibility: they are guiding not just their own attention, but to a large extent, everyone else’s.2

Take, as a case in point, strategy. An organization’s strategy represents the desired pattern of organizational attention, on which everyone should share a degree of focus, each in their particular way.3 A given strategy makes choices about what to ignore and what matters: Market share or profit? Current competitors or potential ones? Which new technologies? When leaders choose strategy, they are guiding attention.


Where Does Strategy Come From?

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, after having been ousted in 1984, he found a company with a sea of products— computers, peripheral products for computers, twelve different types of Macintosh. The company was floundering. His strategy was simple: focus.

Attention in organizations, as with individuals, has a limited capacity. Organizations, too, have to choose where to allocate attention.

Instead of dozens of products, they would concentrate on just four: one computer and one laptop each for two markets, consumer and professional. Just as in his Zen practice, where recognizing you’ve become distracted helps you concentrate, he saw that “[d] eciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”4

Jobs was relentless in filtering out what he considered irrelevancies, both personally and in his own life. But he knew that in order to simplify effectively you need to understand the complexity that you are reducing. A single decision to simplify, like Jobs’s dictum that Apple products allow a user to do anything in three clicks or less, demanded a deep understanding of the function of the commands and buttons being given up, and finding elegant alternatives.

The original meaning of strategy was from the battlefield; it meant “the art of the leader”—back then, generals. Strategy was how you deployed your resources; tactics were how battles were fought. Today, leaders need to generate strategies that make sense in whatever larger systems they operate in—a task for outer focus.

A new strategy means reorienting from what’s now business as usual to a fresh focus. Coming up with a radically innovative strategy demands perceiving a novel position, one your competitors do not see. Winning tactics are available to everyone, yet are overlooked by all but a few.

Armies of consultants offer elaborate analytic tools for fine- tuning a strategy. But they stop cold when it comes to answering the big question: Where does a winning strategy come from in the first place? A classic article on strategy makes this offhand remark and leaves it at that: to find winning strategies “requires creativity and insight.”5

Those two ingredients take both inner and outer focus. When Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, first realized the potential for cloud computing, he was monitoring the evolution of a system-changing technology—an outer focus—along with his own gut sense of how a company offering such services would do. Salesforce uses the cloud to help companies manage their customer relationships, and it staked out an early position in this competitive space.

The best leaders have systems awareness, helping them answer the constant query, ‘Where should we head and how?’ The self-mastery and social skills built on self and other focus combine to build the emotional intelligence that drives the human engine needed to get there. A leader needs to check a potential strategic choice against everything she knows. And once the strategic choice gets made, it needs to be communicated with passion and skill, drawing on cognitive and emotional empathy. But those personal skills alone will flounder if they lack strategic wisdom.

If you think in a systems way,” says Larry Brilliant, “that drives how you deal with values, vision, mission, strategy, goals, tactics, deliverables, evaluation, and the feedback loop that restarts the whole process.

The Telling Detail On the Horizon

By the mid-2000s, the BlackBerry had become the darling of corporate IT. Companies loved that the system ran on its own closed network, reliable, fast, and secure. They handed them out to employees by the thousands, and the word crackberry (for the addiction of users to their BlackBerrys) entered the lexicon. The company rose to market dominance on four key strengths: ease of typing, excellent security, long battery life, and wireless data compression.

For a time the BlackBerry was a winning technology, changing the rules of the game by displacing competitors (in this case, some functions of PCs and laptops, and, entirely, that era’s mobile phones). But even as BlackBerrys dominated the corporate market and were fast becoming a consumer fad, the world was changing. The iPhone ushered in an epoch where more and more workers bought their own brands of smartphones—not necessarily BlackBerrys—and companies adapted by letting employees bring their devices to the company network. Suddenly BlackBerry’s lock on the corporate market evaporated, as they had to compete with everyone else.

Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian-based maker of the BlackBerry, was slow to catch up. When they introduced a touch-screen, for example, it was no match for those long on the market. BlackBerry’s closed network, once an asset, became a liability in a world where phones themselves—the iPhone, and those based on the Android operating system—had become platforms for their own worlds of apps.

RIM was run by co-CEOs who were both engineers, and the brand’s initial success was built on superior engineering. After RIM’s co-CEOs were forced out by their board, the company announced it would once again focus on companies as their prime market, even though most of its growth had come on the consumer side.

As Thorsten Heins, the new RIM CEO, put it, the company had missed major paradigm shifts in its ecological niche. They had ignored the move in the United States to fourth-generation (4G) wireless networks, failing to build devices for it even as their competitors seized that market. They underestimated how popular the iPhone’s touchscreen would become and stuck to their keyboard.

“If you have a great touch interface, people are actually willing to sacrifice battery life,” Heins says. “We thought that wouldn’t happen. Same thing with security,” as companies changed their standards to allow workers to join corporate networks with their own smartphones.6

While once the BlackBerry brand had seemed revolutionary, now, as one analyst put it, they “seemed clueless about what customers wanted.” 7

The best leaders have systems awareness, helping them answer the constant query, ‘Where should we head and how?

Though it continued to lead in markets like Indonesia, just five years after the BlackBerry dominated the American market RIM had lost 75 percent of its market value. As I write this, RIM has announced a last-ditch attempt to recoup market share with a new phone. But RIM may have entered a chapter in a company’s life that could be fatal—a “valley of death.”

That phrase comes from Andrew Grove, the legendary founding CEO of Intel, who recounts a near-death moment in his company’s history. In its early years Intel made silicon chips for what was then the fledgling computer industry. As Grove tells it, top management was oblivious to messages coming from their own sales force telling them that customers were shifting in droves to cheaper chips being made in Japan.

If Intel had not happened to have a side business in microprocessors—which became the ubiquitous “Intel Inside” in the heyday of laptops—the company would have died. But back then, Grove admits, Intel suffered from a “strategic dissonance,” in shifting from making memory chips—its first business success—to designing microprocessors.

The name of Grove’s book—Only the Paranoid Survive—tacitly nods to the necessity of vigilance, scanning for the telling detail on the horizon. This holds true in particular for the tech sector, where super-short product cycles (compared to, say, refrigerators) make the pace of innovation brutal.

The rapid-fire cycle of product innovations in the tech sector makes it a handy source of case studies (somewhat akin to the role that frenetically procreating, short-lived fruit flies play in genetics). In gaming, Nintendo’s remote controller Wii grabbed the market from Sony’s PlayStation 2; Google blew away Yahoo’s supremacy as the favored portal to the Web. Microsoft, which at one point had a 42 percent market share for mobile phone operating systems, saw iPhone earnings mushroom to dwarf the total revenue of Microsoft. Innovations rearrange our sense of what’s possible


Think Different

RIM during its difficult days offers a textbook example of organizational rigidity, where a company that thrives by being the first to market a new technological twist falls behind successive tech waves because their focus fixates on the old new thing, not the next. An organization that focuses inwardly may execute superbly. But if it has not attuned to the larger world in which it operates, that execution may end up in the service of a failed strategy.

An organization that focuses inwardly may execute superbly. But if it has not attuned to the larger world in which it operates, that execution may end up in the service of a failed strategy.

Any business school course on strategy will tell you about two approaches: exploitation and exploration. Some people—and some businesses like RIM—succeed through a strategy of exploitation, where they refine and learn how to improve an existing capacity, technology, or business model. Others find their road to success through exploration, by experimenting with innovative alternatives to what they do now.

Those who exploit can find a safer path to profits, while those who explore can potentially find a far greater success in the next new thing—though the risks of failure are greater, and the horizon of payback further away. Exploitation is the tortoise, exploration the hare.

The best decision-makers are ambidextrous in their balance of the two, knowing when to switch from one to the other. They can lead switch-hitting organizations, which are, for instance, good at seeking growth by simultaneously innovating and containing costs—two very different operations. Kodak was superb at analog photography but stumbled in the new competitive reality of digital cameras.

Danger here abounds during a business downturn, when companies understandably focus on surviving and meeting their numbers by cutting costs—but often at the expense of caring for their people or keeping up with how the world has changed. Being in survival mode narrows our focus.

Apple’s slogan “think different” dictates a switch to exploration. Moving into new territory rather than hunkering down to increase efficiency is more than a contrast in stances—at the level of the brain the two represent entirely different mental functions and neural mechanisms. Attention control holds the key for decision-makers needing to make the switch.


Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted from Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Daniel Goleman, a former science journalist for the New York Times, is the author of many books, including the international bestseller Emotional Intelligence. He co-founded the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the Yale University Child Studies Center (now at the University of Illinois at Chicago). He lives in Massachusetts. Follow him on twitter @DanielGolemanEI.

1.Davenport and Back, The Attention Economy.

2.Davenport and Back cite data from a small company showing a very high correlation between what leaders focused on and the focus of employees. For a multinational, there was still a high correlation between the two, but less strong.
3.William Ocasio of the Kellogg School of Management, who argues for viewing corporations in terms of the flow of attention, defines business strategy as organizing patterns of attention in a distinct focus of time and effort by the company on a particular set of issues, problems, opportunities, and threats. William Ocasio, “Towards an Attention-Based View of the Firm,” Strategic Management Journal 18, S1 (1997): 188.
4.Steve Jobs quoted in Walter Isaacson, “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs,” Harvard Business Review, April 2012, pp. 93–102. As Jobs was dying of liver cancer he was visited by Larry Page, the Google cofounder who was about to take the reins as CEO there. Jobs’s advice to Page: instead of being all over the map, focus on a handful of products.
5.Michael Porter, “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review, Novem- ber–December, 1996, pp. 61–78.
6.Ian Marlow, “Lunch with RIM CEO Thorsten Heins: Time for a Bite, and Little Else,” Globe and Mail, August 24, 2012.
7.James Sruowiecki, “BlackBerry Season,” New Yorker, February 13 and 20, 2012, p. 36.



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