Vital Leadership in an Age of Distraction


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Few things thwart vital leadership faster than distraction.

Followers in an organization (and face it, most of us are followers) expect and increasingly demand that their leaders rise above the distractions and help keep the organization focused on what truly matters.

Our work environments are a microcosm of our larger society and suffer from the same ailments: people too quick to judge, too quick to divide, too quick to opine, and too quick to confuse the urgent with the important.

So what’s a leader to do amidst our propensity toward distraction? Let me offer five remedies.

First, identify the truly important. Not merely the interesting or the urgent, but that small handful of absolutely critical, vision-centric issues and questions that must be addressed and settled; the issues that are truly transformational. Once identified, draw a circle around these issues and keep them central to all that you do. These issues are your bull’s-eye.

Second, formulate a plan of action and ruthlessly follow that plan. This sounds tough, and it is. It is my experience that as soon as you settle on one course of action other options immediately become more interesting. Resist the temptation. Focus on the core issues. As a corollary, give people permission to turn away from issues that are less critical. Permission to let go is a powerful motivator.

Third, model. Everyone watches the leader, and it is not surprising that what is important to the leader becomes important to her or his staff. The leader needs to be on guard. Every word and action needs to reinforce the critical issues. A president once told me that one of his primary jobs is to manage his end of the slinky. In other words, he was ever mindful that everything he said and did vibrated throughout the organization. When he stayed on target, the staff stayed on target as well.

At the other end of the scale is the leader who continually rethinks things, opening settled issues up to discussion, and undeciding things that were decided. This is a recipe for organizational paralysis and decline.

Fourth, remind. People wander from the vision. People lose their focus. People turn away. Great leaders remind their staff again and again what is important, what is valued, and, by extension, what is not. Help people understand the need to completely focus on the vital few (those critical issues within the circle) and avoid the distractions of the trivial many.

Fifth, recognize and reward. This is a two-stepper. Recognize and celebrate progress on the key issues. Amidst change, people need to know that progress is being made. But don’t stop there. Publicly reward the people who are making things happen. Hyper-performers crave recognition.

Let me close with this. A number of years ago we were working with a small, faith-based school in South Carolina on their strategic plan. At the beginning of the project the president asked the chaplain to offer a blessing for our undertaking.

Looking back, I think the chaplain had a pretty good understanding of the destructive nature of distraction. The chaplain stood and said, “Help us to think and plan. And plan and do. And do and leave undone.”

In other words, he was reminding the planning team of the need to avoid the oh-so-distracting and to focus their minds and hearts on what truly matters.

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