The Most Important Leadership Skill No One Has Heard of…Yet

You can’t survey people on the importance of a leadership skill they’ve never heard of. It would be like asking marketing executives in the 1990s to rate the importance of search engine optimization.

Today, empathy is topping the surveys of in-demand leadership skills. It’s not surprising that in chaotic times people want leaders who care. I for one, hope that the popularity of empathy as a leadership skill gives rise to kinder, more inclusive organizations. I don’t expect empathy to go out of fashion. Still, those of us who help leaders and organizations prepare for the future need to think about skills that might not be on anyone’s radar screen.

I want to nominate a skill that I believe will become indispensable for tomorrow’s leaders. Like empathy, It’s the type of skill that starts with self-awareness. Developing this skill will require us to learn how to notice and interrupt counterproductive habits of perception.

Allow me to introduce, attention agility.

What is attention agility?

Attention agility is the skill of quickly and easily regulating how you take in information. Like mindfulness, attention agility brings awareness to what most often goes unnoticed. Also like mindfulness, attention agility demands that we become aware of how we pay attention, and that we learn to sense when we may be focused on the wrong things.

With the advent of the internet, the ubiquity of smartphones, and the rise of social media, the topic of attention has gotten, well, a lot of attention. A Google Scholar search of articles and books written in the early days of the internet (1990 – 1993) using the search term “attention” came back with 432,000 results. Conducting a search across the same number of years, 2004 – 2007 (roughly, from the introduction of Facebook to the Introduction of the first iPhone) generated 4.5 million results!

Attention Matters

Distracted driving is a serious hazard which caused over 3,000 deaths in the U.S. during 2019. We have been experiencing a global spike in attention-deficit disorder diagnoses. Psychologists and neuroscientists have demonstrated the stunning phenomenon known as inattentional blindness, in which we fail to notice fully visible objects because our attention was engaged elsewhere.

The deluge of information feels inescapable. Many have described our current times as the post-truth era. Somehow objective facts have become less influential than appeals to our emotions and beliefs. It’s not that we value objective reality less, it’s that our personal search engines, our attention apparatus, is optimized for threats and outrage.

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll be more discerning consumers of information and influence. When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

Modes of attention

In 1890, American psychologist, William James devoted a chapter of his classic, The Principles of Psychology to the topic of attention. James made a distinction between passive attention and voluntary attention.

Passive attention is aimless, it floats like a butterfly. Voluntary attention targets and locks on, it stings like a bee. William James as interpreted by Muhammed Ali.

Imagine a walk in a beautiful, natural landscape. You suddenly become aware of the smell of an unusual flower alongside the trail (passive). You pull out your phone to look up the name of the flower (voluntary). You put the phone away and allow the environment to present itself to you (passive). This back-and-forth between focusing and unfocusing is what it feels like to regulate your attention. When you learn to switch modes easily and intentionally in a variety of situations, you’ve developed attention agility.

Why is attention agility important?

First, we have never had more information competing for our attention. Secondly, our brains have evolved to narrow our attention in times of stress and anxiety. As our information-rich world imposes itself on our overtaxed brains, we lose the ability to assess the validity of what we notice. Furthermore, it’s hard to appreciate the opportunity cost of what we don’t notice.

What William James called voluntary attention has always been prized by our teachers and our managers. We reward the ability to concentrate. We consider distraction a deficiency. We admire decision makers who create mental boundaries so they can include the relevant variables without the burden of extraneous thoughts or emotions. It makes perfect sense to value the ability to stay on task, but only if we’re working on the right task.

When we know what we want to accomplish, voluntary attention helps us focus. When we feel stuck, when our situation is changing quickly, and the future feels completely unpredictable, voluntary attention could point our focus in the wrong direction.

Consider the challenge many organizational leaders are facing today as they try to figure out how and where people will work when the pandemic no longer dictates the rules for convening. What should leaders pay attention to: Real estate costs? Worker productivity? Technology? Morale? Probably, all the above and more. Solving for the future of workspaces calls for a blend of voluntary attention and passive attention. Aimless, butterfly-like attention may surface hidden insights and creative options that suggest a way forward. Once you see a way forward, engaging your voluntary attention will help you implement a plan of action.

The Ascendance of Passive Attention

You know who is great at staying on task? Machines.

We don’t want to reduce the amount of information available to us. We’re already developing artificial intelligence (AI) to help us sort and package information so we can digest it. Machine learning makes AI more intelligent as it processes information and gets feedback about the utility of its outputs. So far, machine learning is a goal-seeking activity. Computer programs apply voluntary attention to data.

Would an artificially intelligent android pause while hiking to smell a flower? We pause because we have a passive attention mode that is not goal oriented. Passive attention gives us pause. The pause may give us something beneficial that we weren’t looking for.

Maybe there will come a day when a machine notices something it wasn’t looking for. For now, serendipity belongs exclusively to humans. We have plenty of strategies, tools, dietary supplements, and smartphone apps to build up our voluntary attention capacity. What we lack is a way to productively distract ourselves when the glare of our voluntary-attention high-beams blinds us to interesting information and insightful ideas alongside the trail.