Successful leadership is intrinsically linked to focus—people who sharpen their focus are more effective, increase their performance and are perceived as better leaders. However, the ability to direct your mental and physical faculty towards one objective is easier said than done. Our minds are programmed to wander.
Visualise this familiar scenario: you’re at a conference, presentation, or some other social or business meeting and find it difficult to concentrate. You start to pay attention, but before too long, your mind has wandered off. Then you become conscious your mind has scattered and for a while give your full attention only at some point to become aware your mind has wandered off again.
Imagine a person walking along a country road with a sack of squawking hens. The hens peck through the bag and escape, scattering in all directions. The person chases, running around in circles after the scattered hens in an attempt to put them back in a sack.
The sack is a metaphor for the mind, and the scattered hens are a metaphor for the minds tendency to be distracted, especially if the task at hand doesn’t engage our interest. With brains spending 50% of their time wandering, proficient leadership doesn’t require constant focus, but rather the ability to harmonise the relationship between awareness and a wandering mind.
Contraction and Expansion
From the perspective of awareness, when the mind wanders, there is a contraction, and when it becomes conscious the mind has wandered, there is an expansion.
Contraction and expansion is a universal natural effect. Breathing is a movement of contraction and expansion. Economies and business cycles expand and contract, we build bridges and buildings allowing for contraction and expansion, and attention contracts and expands, especially if we don’t remain conscious of the mind’s tendency to roam.
If levels of awareness are high, distractions don’t cause a lack of focus—they’re just noted.
Contraction and expansion is a practical, simplified way of thinking about the mind and its movements. It’s like bouncing on a trampoline; there is either up or down. You could say this information is self-evident, and that’s true, but it’s a down to earth, simple way to alert oneself to be more present.
Expand for Higher Performance
Awareness—contracted or expanded—determines performance and outcome. When awareness contracts, it can always contract further. The opposite is true for expansion.
A highly focused mind will perform better than a less concentrated mind. A lower focus is usually a failure of attention through a distraction or forgetting the task at hand. While staying alert and attentive is a choice, you may have distractions, but if the level of awareness is high, distractions don’t cause a lack of focus—they’re just noted. In psychology, it’s called metacognition and is a beneficial skill in any situation. The benefit of cultivating awareness, attention or focus (all have the same root) increases not just performance but improves mood through increased happiness, coping skills, relationship skills, and so on.
Leaders must cultivate their awareness towards themselves, others and the wider world. Meditation or any reflective or contemplation practice such as journaling is an excellent and effective way to expand and stabilise awareness and limit contraction. For many leaders, the ability to optimise your concentration can define the difference between the happiness and energy levels of your teams. The only limit in either direction is the limit you choose.