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How leaders can focus on the things that really matter


One of the fundamental aspects of leadership is directing people’s attention – and to do so effectively, leaders first need to focus their own attention.

Daniel Goleman, writing for Harvard Business Review, groups modes of attention into three broad categories – focusing on yourself, focusing on others, and focusing on the wider world.

The author insists that this three-pronged awareness must be cultivated and balanced correctly by leaders.


Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. It is important to listen to your inner voice and pay close attention to “internal physiological signals”.

Goleman explains that the insula, located behind the frontal lobes of the brain, monitors these subtle clues. He points out that the sensitivity of the insula is increased by focusing attention on any part of the body. For example, tuning in to your heartbeat will result in the insula activating more neurones in that circuitry.

Gut feelings are actually messages from the insula and the amygdala. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California calls these “somatic markers” – sensations that tell you whether something feels right or wrong.

Another critical element to self-awareness as a leader is combining your experiences over time into an accurate view of your authentic self.

Goleman defines authenticity as being the same person to others as you are to yourself. That means paying attention to others’ views of you, especially if you value their opinion and can trust them to give honest feedback.

Receiving this kind of feedback can be tricky for leaders, who are more used to dishing it out. Goleman advises that “open awareness” can be useful – this means taking note of what’s going on without getting caught up in specific details, censoring or making judgements.

Another important aspect of focusing on yourself is “cognitive control”. This will enable you to pursue your goals regardless of setbacks and distractions. Goleman points out that the neural circuitry used for such single-mindedness also manages unruly emotions.

Good cognitive control, therefore, is displayed by leaders who can stay calm in a crisis, resist agitation and bounce back from disappointments and failures.


According to Goleman, leaders who are effective at focusing on others are easy to spot – they are the ones whose opinions carry the most weight. They are able to find common ground and people want to work for them, meaning they often emerge as “natural leaders” in their environment.

Rather than being a single attribute, empathy comes in three distinct varieties, Goleman insists – and each is important for effective leadership: cognitive empathy (understanding someone else’s perspective); emotional empathy (feeling what someone else feels); and empathic concern (sensing what someone else needs from you).

Cognitive empathy is fed by an inquisitive nature, and is essential for getting the best out of people as it enables leaders to explain themselves to others in meaningful ways.

Emotional empathy is key to mentoring, managing clients and assessing group dynamics. Goleman explains that it originates from “ancient parts of the brain beneath the cortex” – the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex.

These enable us to “feel fast without thinking deeply” and “tune us in by arousing in our bodies the emotional states of others”.

Empathic concern is closely related to emotional empathy, giving you the ability to sense not only how people are feeling but what you can do for them. It involves a fine balance: “it can create distracting feelings of anxiety about people and circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control”. However, deliberately numbing your feelings is not an option as it could lead to losing touch with empathy.

Social sensitivity is another crucial factor in focusing on others. The socially sensitive are able to detect the norms of a new culture and can act with skill in different situations, putting others at ease.


A strong outward focus will help a leader become a good listener and a good questioner. Strategic thinking involves looking for ways to exploit your current advantage and exploring for new ones. Switching to exploration requires a deliberate cognitive effort to disengage from familiar routine.

Goleman points out that sleep deprivation, drinking, stress and mental overload all have the potential to disrupt the executive circuitry used to make that cognitive switch. Therefore, you need some uninterrupted time for reflection to refresh your outward focus and pursue innovation.

It’s important to remain alert for anything that could be relevant to the problem at hand. Again, open awareness will allow your mind to associate freely and allow the solution to emerge spontaneously’.

When it comes to all three types of focus, Goleman insists that “what it takes is not talent so much as diligence – a willingness to exercise the attention circuits of the brain just as we exercise our analytic skills and other systems of the body".

The Focused Leader
Daniel Goleman
Harvard Business Review