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.

Preventing the Spread of Infectious Beliefs

I have some beliefs about drivers in Dallas, Texas.

My wife and I moved to Dallas over 30 years ago from Los Angeles. I learned to drive in LA. People who live in Southern California spend a lot of time in their cars, it’s a significant part of their lives. In Dallas, you might arrive somewhere and mention the weather because quick, extreme changes in weather are not unusual. In LA, when you arrive somewhere the first question is often, “How did you get here?” The appropriate response includes a list of freeway numbers, “I took the 10 to the 405 to the 134, but going back I’m taking the 110.” Your response might prompt a respectful nod or incite an argument.

Drivers in LA do a lot of merging and lane changing, maybe that’s why they’re more disciplined about using their turn signals. Drivers in Dallas switch lanes without signaling and often don’t bother to indicate a turn. I shared this observation with a North Texas native once. He bragged, “signaling a lane change is a sign of weakness.”

From Turn Signals to Tooth Fairies

We’ll come back to my beliefs about Dallas drivers in a moment. First, I want to discuss the Tooth Fairy.

For years, our three daughters accepted as fact that a kindly, winged fairy visited in the night to exchange money for teeth, but only if the tooth was tucked under their pillow. Somewhere, I still have a note to the Tooth Fairy written by one of my daughters. She politely requested that the fairy leave the tooth and the money. I have it on good authority that the Tooth Fairy acceded to her wishes.

Richard Dawkins, the author, evolutionary biologist, and secularist famously compared belief in the Tooth Fairy to religious faith. In his 1991 essay Viruses of the Mind, Dawkins compared delusional beliefs to mental infections. Children, he argued are susceptible to misinformation in the same way that immune-deficient patients cannot protect themselves from viruses.

Mental Immunity

We are living in a time when comparisons to epidemiology and contagion are particularly, you’ll excuse the expression, germane. The philosopher Andy Norman has taken the idea-as-virus metaphor one step further. In his new book, Mental Immunity, Norman levels up the status of the metaphor arguing that ideologies are not like infections, they are infections – infections of the mind. If Norman gets his way, the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-6) will include something like infectious misinformation as a legitimate disease state. He has a point.

I can easily imagine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devoting resources to what Norman has dubbed, “Cognitive Immunology.” Even if they don’t, there’s little doubt that bad ideologies harm public health. Consider the societal “morbidities” associated with the following beliefs:

  • I will be rewarded in the afterlife if I blow myself up while murdering civilians in public
  • The 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump
  • The government is putting microchips in the Covid-19 vaccines

I’m persuaded by Norman’s argument. Whether he’s torturing a metaphor or opening a line of scientific inquiry may not matter. It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

Not all infections of the body are equally detrimental. Covid-19 might land you in the hospital, but the common cold won’t. Similarly, not all infectious beliefs threaten civil society. You could argue that children enthralled by the idea of a tooth fairy inspire us with their innocence. At worst, I get irritable trying to guess the motives of drivers speeding up or slowing down around me. My belief that my fellow North Texans won’t signal their intentions with their blinkers doesn’t seem particularly virulent.

A Symptom of Being Infected with a Belief

I’m aware of the bodily symptoms associated with the common cold. What symptoms are associated with being infected by a common misconception? I can think of one. Let’s look more closely at my belief that drivers in Dallas don’t use their turn signals.

Thanks to confirmation bias, when I drive around Dallas, I see countless examples of people changing lanes without signaling. Interestingly, when I drive with my wife or daughters, they’re fond of pointing out counterexamples. “Look,” a helpful, back-seat daughter once gleefully announced, “that green car is signaling.”

Here’s how I know that I’ve been infected with a bad belief. When someone points out contrary evidence, my first instinct is not to reconsider my belief. When my daughter points out a driver dutifully using their blinker, without missing a beat I’m likely to counter, “They’re not from Dallas.” I’d rather reinterpret the facts than let go of my questionable belief.

There are innumerable practices and prescriptions for strengthening the physical body’s immune system. Norman’s book offers cognitive fitness advice for boosting our mental immunity. One idea he offers is to treat your favorite beliefs like houseguests.

Once caught, an infectious belief, like a virus makes itself at home. Over time, it’s hard to distinguish your identity from your cherished beliefs. You know you’ve become infected by a belief when you become loyal to it. Instead of you having the belief, the belief has you. Treating beliefs like a houseguest is to recognize them as temporary, always at risk of overstaying their welcome.

Take the Evidence Test

Here’s an exercise to try. Pick a belief you hold that guides your priorities or connects you to a welcoming community. What would you accept as evidence that your belief is misguided or flat out wrong? If you can’t imagine any reasons or facts that would separate you from the belief, your mental immune system has been compromised. It’s no longer something you simply believe. The belief has altered your mind’s structure. The houseguest has taken up residence and redecorated the place.

The Four Disciplines of an Unstuck Mind

Why did Blockbuster and Kodak, once undisputed leaders in their respective industries, both file for bankruptcy? You might think that each business ignored the innovations that eventually led to their downfall, but the story is a bit more complicated.

With hindsight, it would be easy to conclude that Blockbuster didn’t see the digital and streaming entertainment business coming. In fact, Blockbuster had an opportunity to purchase Netflix in 2000 and passed. Not only that, Blockbuster developed an online DVD subscription business in 2004.

With hindsight, it would be easy to conclude that The Eastman Kodak Company didn’t see the digital camera business coming. You might be surprised to learn that a Kodak engineer invented the first digital camera and Kodak held the first patent for digital cameras. Even more surprising, Kodak had an online photo storage and sharing platform as early as 1999.

Stuck Happens

The leaders of Blockbuster and Kodak at the turn of this century were smart, strategic and experienced. They noticed emerging trends. They just underestimated the threat in the same way that railroad executives at the turn of 20th century disregarded the potential of the automobile.

Getting stuck is not only about missing something important. Sometimes we want to change, but we can’t figure out how to let go of our habits and routines. In the first case, being stuck has to do with how we process information. In the second case, being stuck has to do with the way we process our emotions.

We can use the framework below to characterize four mindsets that keep us stuck. The left-hand column describes elements related to people, including ourselves. In the lower-left quadrant we find the human elements that we can influence (e.g. our own behaviors and those of our core relationships). The upper-left quadrant includes human elements that we cannot influence (e.g. society and social movements).

The right-hand column describes elements related to structures. Structures are arrangements of interrelated elements. Structures include everything from our workspaces and tools (things we can influence) to large scale systems like public schools or research programs that study emerging technologies.

If we lack the ability to recognize the influence of our emotions, we succumb to the human element mindsets that keep us stuck:

  • We conserve our assumptions without pausing to ask if they still serve us.
  • We fear and reject social movements instead of reflecting on how they emerged and what they might mean for the future.

If we lack the ability to recognize biases and limitations in the way we process information, we succumb to the structural elements that keep us stuck.

  • We maintain our processes and routines without questioning whether they still make sense.
  • We misinterpret the significance of innovations.

What Unstuck Minds do Differently

We can use the same framework to identify how each of the four disciplines of an unstuck mind combats each of the mindsets that prevent us from changing our situations. Of course, if you don’t feel stuck, you may not feel motivated to contemplate your situation. I refer to the four strategies as disciplines precisely because I suggest you apply them even when you don’t feel the need. It’s like disciplining yourself to eat well and exercise rather than waiting to be dissatisfied with your health before taking action.


People with unstuck minds regularly reflect on their own assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors. They ask: How might I be getting in my own way?


People with unstuck minds get curious about shifts in societal attitudes and norms. They don’t necessarily buy-in to the latest trend, but they want to know: What does this trend say about our social norms?


People with unstuck minds tinker and improve their surroundings. They ask: Why do we do it that way?


People with unstuck minds are agile and respond to environmental changes. They ask: What opportunities become possible if this innovation catches on?

The Neural Pathway Less Travelled

Here’s a puzzle to play with. Look at the picture below. Logically, what image belongs in the empty space? In my experience, most people struggle to solve it by simply concentrating on the images until an answer emerges. Work at it a bit and then walk away, let your mind wander, don’t become overly attached to your first few guesses about the pattern. When you come back to it, you may experience an insight that brings to mind the missing image in a way that suddenly makes the solution feel obvious. When you’re ready to see the answer, follow this link.

While sheltering in place, I’ve been reading up on the neuroscience of the feeling we experience as being stuck. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve also been binge-watching a lot of TV shows. My ability to concentrate has its limits, which as it turns out, is precisely the point of what I have been learning about our brains. Let me sum it up for you. It turns out that our brains are lazy. Our brains take shortcuts. Decades of research by psychologists bolstered by more recent studies from neuroscientists and behavioral economists demonstrate that sometimes our neural pathways become cognitive ruts. It’s worth noting that our brains have evolved to take shortcuts. Our brains take shortcuts because shortcuts are efficient and require less effort. It’s helpful for example, that we don’t have to relearn how the world works every time we wake up in the morning. Sometimes, however our brains apply shortcuts that predispose us to getting stuck, often without us realizing that we’re stuck. The beneficial feature of our brain circuitry that helps us learn from experience can become a programming bug we refer to as a bias.

            Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky introduced the concept of cognitive bias in the early 1970’s. The term cognitive bias refers to a broad array of mistakes in human perception that lead to irrational conclusions and poor judgement. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for applying his research into the psychology of decision making to economic theory. Much of Kahneman and Tversky’s research conclusions support the idea that our brains are designed to reduce mental effort. About a decade later, in related research, the Australian educational psychologist John Sweller coined the term, “cognitive load” to describe the impacts of mental effort on our ability to solve problems.

            To reduce cognitive load, our brains take mental shortcuts. Psychologists refer to these mental shortcuts as heuristics. A heuristic (from the Ancient Greek: “find” or “discover”) is a rule-of-thumb that we substitute for the more cognitively demanding work of figuring something out from scratch. For example, if you have a method for fitting suitcases into the trunk of a car (e.g. put the largest cases in first), you’re applying a heuristic. I described a heuristic when I taught my daughters to estimate a 20% tip at restaurants by moving the decimal one place to the left on the total charge and then doubling the number to the left of the decimal.

            Neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex become the literal shortcuts for the electrical currents we recognize as habits of thought. We are wired to interpret current situations according to the rules developed from prior experience. To our brains, the familiarity of prior experience amounts to following a well-traveled neural pathway. Being stuck in a rut may not get us where we want to go, but it feels safer than making a change. Creative solutions and insights often require getting out of neural ruts to break a pattern of thought, which is why a new solution often emerges from going for a walk or taking a shower instead of concentrating on the problem at hand.

As we age, it takes more effort to form new neural pathways. Perhaps we feel as though we have all the cognitive capability required to make our way in the world and so we stick to the comfortable neural pathways already in place. Whatever the cause, it just feels harder to learn new things (how to play a musical instrument, how to speak a new language, how to listen to people we disagree with etc.) as adults. The research suggests that reducing mental effort is a priority for our brains. The more complex and stressful our environment, the more our thoughts seek the refuge of our neural ruts.

Here’s the good news. According to research on neuroplasticity, we can continue to develop neural pathways as we age by challenging our brains. One way to challenge your brain is to reframe the questions you’re asking about a situation that you want to change. In his 2017 book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, Harvard psychiatrist and brain-image researcher Srini Pillay recommends changing your questions as a way to shift focus and get unstuck (p. 128). Pillay tells the story of Serena Williams’ comeback against Victoria Azarenka during the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament. Williams described her thinking in an interview after the match. When asked about the moment when she was down by two games in the last set, Williams explained that instead of wondering about her probability of losing, she focused on the question, “What will it take to win?” She calculated that she would need twelve more points and made it her mission to achieve her goal one point at a time.

Tangled up in Q: Questions that limit, misdirect and keep us stuck

I got a Ph.D. in 2015, which means I wrote a really long paper that no one will ever read (except for the people who were paid to read it). Like a lot of doctoral candidates, I conducted a disciplined and comprehensive research study to demonstrate something most people would consider intuitively obvious. Ultimately, my research led to the conclusion: The questions people ask about a situation they want to change reveal a lot about what they’re thinking and feeling.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it turns out that paying attention to how people frame their questions provides a window into thinking traps that may be preventing them from getting unstuck.

When leaders pose questions reflexively about situations that are complex and stressful, they can fall prey to the Inquiry Loop. The Inquiry Loop explains how thinking traps can feel like trying to find your way out of a forest only to realize that you’ve been walking in circles.

InquiryLoopGraphicLABELSThe Inquiry Loop suggests that you won’t get any new information if you don’t change your questions. You won’t change your questions if you don’t recognize the influence your assumptions have on what you choose to learn about. Finally, you can’t alter your assumptions without new information.

One way to break free of the inquiry loop is to change the questions you’re asking. Better questions could lead to new information and new information could lead to an insight. An insight has the power to transform our assumptions. The revised assumptions make it possible to listen differently, generate different questions and surface even more information. In short, a better question can turn a vicious cycle that keeps us stuck into a virtuous cycle that opens up options.

Lately, I’ve been working with leaders to help them improve their questions. I have come to recognize distinctive patterns in their questions; patterns that undermine their desire to find comprehensive, novel and widely accepted solutions. Many of the counterproductive questions that all of us tend to ask when we feel stuck fall into one or more recognizable categories. Here are four categories of questions that often lure us into a thinking trap.

1) The lure of the veiled solution

Organizational leaders are expected to have a point of view about any and all situations. Leaders also have a bias for action. We shouldn’t be surprised that when feeling stuck or challenged by a complex situation, leaders quickly form opinions and then set about implementing their conclusions. The urge to fix things often shows up in the way we pose a question about a situation we want to change. For example, when confronted with complaints that support functions feel left out and underutilized, a leader might start with the question:

How do we improve communication between line leaders and their support functions?

The question includes a point of view about how to respond to complaints about feeling left out and underutilized, but is a lack of communication really at the heart of the matter? Maybe line leaders feel overly regulated when they involve support functions so they intentionally work around them. A lot of unproductive work gets generated when people rush off to solve the wrong problem.

2) The lure of the false dichotomy

False dichotomy questions contain “either/or” assumptions. The question gets framed to limit (sometimes intentionally) answers to one of two opposing options. The problem is that real-world options are rarely if ever, mutually exclusive. False dichotomies have rhetorical impact, but almost always contain a logical fallacy. Imagine the politician that declares, “Either vote in favor of this legislation or condemn this country to a future of lawless anarchy.”

Here’s a typical false dichotomy question that could lure us into a thinking trap:

Should we bring in someone from outside the company to head up the marketing department or promote someone from within?

Are those really the only two alternatives? What if we hire someone from the outside to become a chief of staff to an internal hire that runs the department?

3) The get-them-to-change lure

When a situation feels stressful or frustrating, it’s not uncommon to assume outside forces are preventing you from achieving your goals. Sometimes, when we feel stuck and can’t control all the variables influencing our dissatisfying situation, we assign blame. If only our suppliers would lower their prices. If only our employees would act with accountability. If only our sales people would forecast the pipeline more accurately. In some respects the “get-them-to-change lure” is a special case of the lure of the veiled solution. In this case, the solution is for the identified group or individual to change their behavior. As an example…

How do we get our customers to use the tracking feature on our website instead of calling their sales rep when they need information about their orders?

When we accept a “get-them-to-change” framing of a dilemma, we end up thinking of people as automatons. Solving our problem becomes an exercise in figuring out the programming required to alter the behaviors we find troublesome.

4) The lure of the distorted scope

The scope of a question can be too narrow or too broad. When we experience a problem in a specific way, we may arbitrarily narrow our focus. Let’s say our employee engagement survey shows a decline in the scores related to “trust in leadership.” We would be limiting ourselves by asking the too narrow question, “How do we improve our trust scores on the engagement survey?” Alternatively, we could err in the other direction by asking the question, “How do we improve trust around here?”

The first question sends us off to analyze responses to survey items. The second question gives us no place to start.

For help improving question that may be suffering from one or more of the categories described above, take a look at Four Imperatives for Crafting Better Questions and How to Fix a Bad Question