Attention: A Direct Path to Awareness

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. …  Concentration of consciousness is its essence.

―  William James  

Imagine you are an executive of a company and the CEO fails to notice your work or appreciate your contributions. What would you think, how would you feel? These missed connections happen all the time and can result in disengagement and low morale. Now, as a CEO, is this the work environment you want to cultivate within your company?

“Attention is the currency of leadership,” says Ronald Heifetz, professor of business at Harvard University. How we focus our attention provides a direct path to awareness. Leaders need to treat attention as a practice. For this to happen, we (leaders) need to intentionally give and take attention, by – as James notes – “taking possession of the mind.” 

By consciously paying attention to some people and things and not others, we better understand how well we are living through our values, strengths and preferences. Our attention can also reveal what distracts us from purposeful leadership. As an executive coaching client said to me recently, “I know my people (direct reports) are paying attention and watching what I’m doing, so I have to be careful that what I focus on is what I want them to focus on.’’ We had been talking about prioritization, one of the top challenges for all the organizations I coach and consult in. The executive came to realize that their attention needed to be managed first, not time and tasks. The team’s success depended on the executive consistently communicating that attention should be given to certain strategic priorities and taken away from sidetracks and distractions.   

We know from neuroscience that attention is a complex interplay of our interactions with our environment and how our brain processes these experiences. This attention network in our brains and bodies allows us to unconsciously and automatically place our attention on the key people and things that will help us to survive and thrive. The network also gives us the capacity to pay attention on purpose to present experience. This is mindful reflection practice, our voluntary, trainable attention, which we can use in every situation (as did the executive above) to connect with others and build awareness in the process.  

Working With Attention

Ask yourself:

Am I really paying attention to the people and things that truly matter?

What does it mean to others when I give them my attention or take it away?

In working with attention to support greater awareness, the first thing to do is to stabilize our attention in the here and now. As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, stated: To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. When we steady our mind in the present moment, manage distractions and focus on what’s essential, it’s like polishing a viewfinder of dirt, dust, and fog. With a polished, clear viewfinder, we develop an inner steadiness and foster a calm and still mind, one that is open and curious. We all know leaders, who exhibit openness and calm assurance, a command of their attention and presence. These are the leaders we are drawn to and want to follow because they connect with us by paying caring attention to not just what we do but who we are.   

When leaders stabilize their attention in the present moment they notice more. This becomes an approach to leading from a centered and grounded space.  This space, which enables a clear-eyed view of ourselves, others, and the systems we live and work in, is the center of the Tri-Lens Mindful Reflection Model™.

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will… An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.

―  William James  

Mindful Reflection is a practice for improving the voluntary faculty of attention. With intentional practice, we build the capacity to be with our present experiences. Without intentional attention, our minds can easily fall prey to distractions both internal and external. The cost of inattention can be high, from compromised physical safety – like texting and driving, to missed connections with those around us – as an employee who needs feedback and direction but isn’t paid attention to. Recent surveys on employee retention and engagement highlight the significant cost of leaders not paying enough attention. Resignations are on the rise in part because employees are not getting their needs met for developmental feedback and career advancement.

Internal distractions come from the constant dialogue we have with ourselves in our minds. Our inner chatter manifests as a range of voices, from judgment and doubt to ease and confidence. Our thoughts can seem random and disconnected, like a house of mirrors, where it’s hard to know what is real because of the distortions. Returning our attention again and again to a centered, still point requires effort and mind management. Research shows that over time we can train our minds through mindful reflection practice, and in the process change our brains to be more naturally attentive.  

Try this Mindful Reflection Practice to calm your mind and focus your attention: 

Pick an object to center your attention on. You can use your breath, your sensation of sitting or standing, or the sounds around you. Concentrate on the object for one minute, giving it your full attention. Build to 3 minutes of concentration and then to 5 minutes. As you focus your attention, you will become aware of your busy mind. Simply note your thoughts, without judgement, and return to the object, and keep returning again and again. In this way, you will train your attention. 

External distractions chase us away from the present. We have the choice whether or not we pay attention to them. The blistering pace of corporate life can be overwhelming. However, our well-being is in our hands in how we give and take our attention to focus on what’s meaningful and essential. Stabilizing our attention and being fully present in our bodies is the best chance we have of seeing clearly through the viewfinder; it’s our best opportunity to be mindfully reflective.

Mindful Leadership Tri-Lens Reflection Model
Mindful Leadership’s Tri-Lens Mindful Reflection Model™


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