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Thinking Out Loud

Leadership and Attentiveness

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 03, 2013

Over a decade ago, psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote some exceptionally helpful resources on "emotional intelligence." Leaders and students of leadership have learned a great deal especially from the essays on this subject which he contributed to the Harvard Business Review, such as "What Makes a Leader" and "Leadership That Gets Results." When I taught leadership, management and finance in Texas, I found Goleman's approach to flex between different leadership styles helpful for demonstrating to students how effective leaders draw on a variety of models of organizational leadership, shifting from one model to another depending on what is most needed in a particular moment with a particular organization. Goleman understood that the leader's "emotional intelligence" guides him or her to know what sort of personal touch or perspective or response is required at which moment.  

In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Goleman contributed new insights building on his earlier work in an essay titled, "The Focused Leader." Those responsible for leading organizations will want to read the article for themselves so I will not provide a comprehensive summary of his ideas. But I would like to zero-in on one key idea. You might consider this a follow-up on a theme introduced recently in the blog, "Would Jesus Multitask?" in which I explored attentiveness and mindfulness, subjects Goleman also discusses in his essay.  

The "focused leader," according to Goleman, possesses sufficient self-understanding to be able to focus on the needs of others (within the organization and those served by the organization). People who are self-aware, those who have self-knowledge, are the most capable of relating well to others. As Goleman explains, those who are cognitively and emotionally empathic, those who demonstrate empathetic concern for others, are able to find an appropriate level of distance from the feelings of others (while also understanding those feelings cognitively and emotionally) so that they can respond wisely and well as leaders, and are able to resist merely reacting, i.e. being drawn into emotionally high situations such as conflicts.   

Goleman describes this balance between feeling with others (empathy) and finding the appropriate emotional distance from them as the "intuition-deliberation mix." Those who get this "mix" just right are able to keep an organization moving forward while staying in relationship with the organization's internal and external constituencies. Those who get it wrong either lose touch with constituents or become so distracted by the anxiety or hostility of constituents that they can't lead. He provides a helpfully nuanced way to re-conceptualize some key insights many of us learned from Family Systems Theory. However, it is at the point of his analysis of strategic thinking that his insights really come home for me. 

"Any business school course on strategy will give you the two main elements: exploitation of your current advantage and exploration of new ones," Goleman writes. He uses the terms "exploitation" and "exploration" in a technical sense familiar to those who have done strategic planning. He continues: "Exploitation requires concentration on the job at hand, whereas exploration demands open awareness to recognize new possibilities." 

Both exploitation and exploration are essential to imagine innovative approaches and make them a reality on the ground. But exploitation, focusing as it does on making the most of the immediate situation, "is accompanied by activity in the brain's circuitry for anticipation and reward." As such, exploitation is reinforced by staying in the familiar course. If we did it "this way" last time and the time before that, and it worked well enough and we felt good, then we feel an internal motivation to keep doing it that way over and over in the future. However, in a rapidly changing environment (such as the one in which every organization exists today), exploitation of current advantages may not be what is needed "next," at least not if we want an organization to thrive into the future. 

Exploration is required for successful innovation, but exploration requires a very different mindset from exploitation of current advantages. "When we switch to exploration," Goleman writes, "we have to make a deliberate cognitive effort to disengage from [the routine of exploitation] in order to roam widely and pursue fresh paths." Exploration not only does not feed the anticipation/reward circuitry of the brain that exploitation does, coasting along "in a familiar routine," it even creates some anxiety because it pushes us out into the unknown. And it is precisely here that a really problematic collision occurs that can prevent an organization from moving forward. 

In order for exploration to be stimulated, leaders must be mentally, emotionally and (I would add) spiritually able to reflect creatively. What keeps this from happening? Goleman asks. "Sleep deprivation, drinking, stress, and mental overload all interfere with the executive circuitry used to make the cognitive switch [from exploitation to exploration]. To sustain the outward focus that leads to innovation, we need some uninterrupted time in which to reflect and refresh our focus." However, if the anxiety of an organization's internal or external constituency is sufficiently high and constituents are highly reactive, they may seek to keep the organization in the (relatively-speaking) more comfortable mode of exploitation. They may try to find ways to sabotage their leaders' capacity to explore and innovate by undermining the mental and emotional resilience of leaders. The long-term health and vitality of the organization can be held hostage by those with a strong interest in exploiting the present, unless leaders find ways to claim the time and space to rest and play, and sustain the good health necessary for generative and recreative thought.  

Strategic thinking is a lot closer to surfing - sensing how and when and where to position yourself on the surfboard to ride a promising wave while staying aware of what is going on in the larger environment - than it is to producing a massively footnoted volume on the nature and destiny of your organization. Goleman helps us figure out at least a few of the most important things to pay attention to while we're paddling out to catch the next big one. The most important factor for good strategic thinking, however, according to Goleman, may simply be keeping our balance!  

The essay to which I refer in this blog is, Daniel Goleman, "The Focused Leader," HBR (Dec. 2013), 50-60. Goleman's new book is Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (HarperCollins, 2013).


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