The importance of being a focused leader

The main task of a leader is to direct attention. In order to do this, leaders have to learn how to focus their own attention. When speaking about being focused, we tend to mean thinking about one specific thing whilst filtering out everything else. However, a huge amount of research in neuroscience has now shown that we focus in a lot of different ways, for different reasons using different neural pathways.

By putting the different modes of attention into three broad categories, focusing on yourself, focusing on others and focusing on the wider world, new light can be shed on a number of different leadership skills. By focusing on themselves and focusing on others, leaders can improve their emotional intelligence. Whilst understanding the way in which they focus on the wider world can help improve their ability to innovate, devise strategy and manage organisations.

Focusing on Yourself

Emotional intelligence starts with self-awareness. Leaders who are more self-aware can draw on more resources in order to make better decisions.

  • Self-Awareness– Being self-aware involves listening to internal physiological signals. Honing-in on sensory impressions in the moment is one significant part of self-awareness. Being able to view our authentic selves is another. Being authentic means to be the same person to others as you are to yourself. This involves paying attention to what other people think of you and being open to input.
  • Self-control– ‘Cognitive control’ is the scientific term for what many people call ‘willpower’. This cognitive control allows executives to pursue a goal regardless of setbacks and distractions. Good cognitive control can be seen in people who remain calm in a crisis and recover from defeat. Many years’ worth of research shows the importance of willpower in relation to leadership success

Focusing on Others

It is easy to recognise Executives who can focus on others effectively. These Executives are usually the ones who can find common ground, whose opinions mean the most and the ones with whom other people want to work. No matter the social or organisational rank, they emerge as natural leaders.

  • Empathy– When we speak about empathy we usually refer to it as a single attribute. However, if we take a closer look at where leaders focus when they show it, reveals that there are three distinct kinds which are significant for leadership effectiveness.

Cognitive empathy – which is the ability to understand the perspective of another person. It allows leaders to explain themselves in meaningful ways, which is crucial in getting the best out of their direct reports. This type of empathy requires leaders to think about feelings as opposed to directly feeling them.

Emotional empathy – which is the ability to feel what another person feels. This is important for reading group dynamics, effective mentoring and management of clients.

Empathic concern – which is the ability to sense what someone else needs from you. This is closely related to emotional empathy and allows you to sense both how people feel and what it is that they need from you. Empathic concern requires a person to manage their personal distress without closing themselves off to the pain of others. Some research has suggested that the application of empathic concern is vital in making moral judgements.


  • Building Relationships – People who have no social sensitivity can be easily noticed. It seems as though social sensitivity is related to cognitive empathy. Executives who are cognitively empathic tend to do better at overseas assignments as they pick up implicit norms fairly quickly. Research suggests that as a person rises through the ranks, their ability to both make and maintain personal connections seems to deteriorate and they tend to overlook the ideas and talents of the lower ranks. This should be a warning to top executives.

Focusing on the Wider World

Leaders who have a strong outward focus tend to be both good listeners and good questioners. They tend to be visionaries who can sense the consequences of decisions and visualise how the choices they make now will work out in the future.

  • Strategy – The two main elements of strategy are: exploit your current advantage and explore new ones. Exploitations requires you to concentrate on the current job, whereas exploration calls for open awareness to perceive opportunities.
  • Innovation – Today everyone can access the same information, being able to put ideas together in new and creative ways creates new value.
  • Systems Awareness – This skill in most prevalent in those excel at matrix organisations, assembly lines or designing software. It had been suggested that in a significant number of people, a strong systems awareness is linked to an empathy deficit. As a result of this, although people who have a superior understanding of systems are assets to an organisation, they may not necessarily be effective leaders.

To summarise, focused leaders are in tune with how they feel, understand how other people see them, can manage their impulses, can tune out distractions and comprehend what other people need from them. This can be quite difficult and takes willingness and determination. If you would like to improve your skills or that of your team with leadership coaching, find out more information about our coaching services through or website.

Goleman, D. (2013) The Focused Leader [online]

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