These days, leaders are bombarded with numerous daily intrusions: urgent email, appointments every fifteen minutes, decisions ranging from hiring to overall vision. Most leaders now travel with technology that connects them to a running stream of messages and data, 24/7.
This stream of distraction draws attention away from what’s immediately at hand; those seemingly urgent rings and alerts may not be crucial. Working to maintain clear focus on a task – despite intrusions – consistently occupies the brain’s circuitry for attention.
“Cognitive effort” is the technical expression for the mental attention demanded to process our information load. Just like the muscles in our bodies, attention can become fatigued. Common symptoms of attention fatigue are lowered effectiveness, increased distractedness, and irritability. These symptoms also indicate depletion in the energy required to sustain neural functioning.
Concentration, on the other hand, requires selecting a single point of focus and resisting the pull of all else. To concentrate, we must sift through an onslaught of irrelevancies to determine what’s important. Leaders who do this well are able to stave off attention fatigue; they are energized rather than flagging and distracted.
Unfortunately, a sharp focus on goals is not the only kind of attention leaders need. Creativity and innovation, for instance, demand a more open and relaxed attention. This is where self-awareness is crucial: monitoring attention lets us check whether our mode of attention suits the needs of a given situation.
In “top-down” attention we actively decide what receives our attention. “Bottom-up” attention means we function mechanically, letting our focus be dictated by whatever grabs it. This bottom-up attention causes us to be ignorant of the preferences and blind spots in our unconscious minds. There is a place for this in life, of course – just not at work.
“Cognitive control” is the technical expression for employing our capacity for top-down attention – an essential aspect of self-awareness. In leaders, cognitive control is paramount to leadership competencies like self-management – the ability to focus on a goal and the discipline to pursue it despite distractions and setbacks. Interestingly, the same neural framework that allows for intense pursuit of goals also manages unruly emotions. Strong cognitive control is therefore present in leaders who remain calm in emergencies, subdue their agitation, and can recover quickly from defeat.
To illustrate the power of good cognitive control, let’s consider the implications of a 15-year longitudinal study done in Dunedin, New Zealand. The study rigorously tested more than one thousand children on their cognitive control, and then tracked them down again when they had reached their 30s. Astonishingly, their childhood ability to focus in the face of distraction was a stronger predictor of their adult financial success than both their IQ and the financial status of the families.
Self-management can be seen, too, in those executives who are honest about both their assets and their limits. While this means they can be assured in their performance when they are functioning within these limitations, it also indicates they know when it’s time to rely on colleagues for the best results.
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