Leadership Today Ain’t What It Used to Be!

Welcome to the world of on-the-fly leadership. A time in history when business leaders find themselves almost breathless at the end of the day flying between meetings struggling to keep pace. In the never-fast-enough workplace of today, a palpable condition has emerged in which leaders find it difficult if not impossible to focus their attention – especially on the things that matter when they matter!

There is no better way to emphasize the importance of focus than by citing Tom Peters, the world’s leading authority on excellence, in his book “The Excellence Divided” which states: “The ability to focus is a critical leadership skill and selecting the right technology and making the right organizational moves is a crucial part of focus.”

However, according to many leading research studies including those conducted by our firm, leaders find it ever-more difficult to focus for two basic reasons: workplace complexity and work overload. These are the performance killers. They act like a “wave of resistance” pushing against all efforts on the part of leaders to move the organization forward.     

"wave of resistance"

But how could that be! Technology promised to be the panacea to end this problem. It is touted as the way to bring efficiency to the workplace. More is better according to many technology gurus as leaders today find themselves drowning in information.

Coming at them from all directions and generated by a host of disconnected resources, the overabundance of information is a formula for disaster. In fact, Fortune 500 companies alone lost $20B to $30B annually between 2016 and 2019 due to poor organizational performance. One of the main culprits cited: the inability of leaders and teams to efficiently manage the overwhelming amount of information to make decisions.      

To best represent the plight of leaders today, I turn to a 2017 McKinsey study finding that    leaders lead through what they called “immediacy.” The term is code for putting out one tactical fire after another. This unsavory trend is taking its toll on workplace dynamics and workforce morale, and without an intervention to reverse this trend, many companies will find themselves going the way of Eastman Kodak, Motorola, or Sears where their mode of running the business is no longer relevant.   

Unfortunately, the McKinsey conclusion aptly describes the state of leadership in the modern era. Counterintuitive as it may seem, leading through immediacy is a fact of organizational life. The study went on to explain why leaders can’t get to everything on their plate causing them to become apathetic or detached from the workplace. Eventually, complacency sets in where leaders feel that they will never catch up so why bother.    

The inability of leaders to focus their attention on the things that matter when they matter combined with the reality that they will never catch up is not just a problem – it’s a crisis! It wreaks havoc in organizational life from the C-suite to line managers across all industries.

Leaders are losing the focus battle. The inability to focus is something leaders instinctively know affects their performance they just don’t know what to do about it. One senior executive shared that because of his inability to focus it’s the things that fall through the proverbial crack that keeps him up at night.

The subject of focus rarely makes it on the agenda of traditional leadership training programs. Why? – it’s not sexy.  In my book “OUTFOCUS – Harness the Power of Collaboration,” I devote an entire chapter to the subject – the science behind it and practical applications to resolve it – to help leaders deal with this formidable syndrome.

When one peels back the onion of focus, one finds a very complicated subject that has been studied by many branches of science from social scientists to neurologists. From a business performance perspective, the ability of leaders to volitionally (voluntarily) focus their attention is critical to lead from a strategic position, a requirement in preparing the organization to compete on the battlefield of tomorrow.

Although being astute and knowledgeable are essential attributes of leadership the ability to focus one’s attention is a true test of good leadership. But it’s getting much harder to do as the wave of resistance – complexity, and overload – continues to gain momentum with the proliferation of technology.  

When leaders are pulled in multiple directions at the same time, they are forced to attend to the things that are most pressing at any given moment – the essence of immediacy. This egregious trend is on the rise as technology continues to complicate and not simplify workplace dynamics.

frustrated leaders in organization

After years of watching leaders struggle to maintain focus, it became apparent that this situation was pervasive across the leadership spectrum. To imagine what is occurring, I coined the term “attention deficit syndrome” to represent this modern-day occurrence. I found that it affects leaders to varying degrees and like any syndrome, it is accompanied by a host of symptoms that no leader great or otherwise can escape – bar none! 

To improve focus first requires leaders to improve their attention skills. In the second chapter of my book – Things That Matter – I explain in detail the critical aspects to improve attention skills. Time is a leader’s most precious resource. Misusing time by focusing on the wrong things is a travesty.        

The intent of this blog is to raise awareness of the importance of focus and to help leaders who suffer symptoms of the syndrome not to feel alone – it’s pervasive! Recognizing the problem is the first step in addressing a problem, and there is no better time than the present to up your attention skills.

In the post-COVID world finding ways to focus your attention should be a high priority – even consider making it “goal 1” on your personal improvement list. Since the pandemic, managing the business virtually has been kicked into high gear and the ability to focus on the things that matter when they matter has been made that much more difficult. The workplace has become an ever-more chaotic environment to get things done. This situation is not about to change anytime soon, in fact, it is getting worse. Loss of focus is a direct result of workplace complexity and work overload, and it affects every leader to some extent and that includes you. Truly, leadership today ain’t what it used to be!