Apollo Robbins is a professional pick pocket, magician and expert in the art of misdirection.  In a recent TED Talk, while mystifying the crowd, stealing wallets and removing watches, he explained step by step how he is able to distract virtually anyone and relieve them of their personal possessions (all of which he obviously returned at the end of the show).

As he articulated the psychology behind what he was doing to the participants, my thoughts began drawing parallels to my leadership. He pointed out that , “If you don’t attend to something, you can’t be aware of it. Attention steers perception and controls your reality.” Anyone who seeks to lead effectively or influence others must, as Robbins puts it, “attend” in order to be aware. To often we allow distractions to “steer perception” on our teams, in those who follow us and even in ourselves. Robbins creates distraction to lower the attention of his audience, and they lose sight of the important things every time.  How often do we allow ourselves to lose sight of the critical issues because we do not attend to what is important in our sphere of leadership?

Below we will look at 4 choices we can make to ensure we attend to and become aware of all of the critical issues surrounding us.  But first lets dig a little deeper into the psychology of awareness.

Robert Greenleaf, in his classic leadership tome Servant Leadership, writes, “Most of us move about with very narrow perception – sight, sound, smell, tactile – and we miss most of the grandeur that is in the minutest thingwe also miss leadership opportunities.” How often do we get caught up in the minutia and after awhile wonder how we got so far off track?  This happens because we tend to operate out of Narrow Span Awareness. Like a horse with blinders on, we all to often see only what is directly in front of us and remain unaware of a myriad of critical factors and influences swirling all around that demand attention.

All effective leaders have Wide Span Awareness.  Leaders do not have the luxury of permitting narrow spans of attention. Although we commend leaders who have “laser like focus” on a goal or priority, they only ever succeed if they attend to the distractions and forces pressuring them from all sides. Greenleaf postulates that “A qualification for leadership is that one can tolerate a sustained wide span of awareness so that one ‘sees it as it is.’” Leaders can not delude or deceive themselves into thinking the narrow road ahead is all that matters. Therefore we must cultivate the inclination toward Wide Span Awareness, and we must sustain it over time.

At first, cultivating Wide Span Awareness is painful and may cause us to refrain from engaging it.  We often deceive ourselves into the assumption that there are no issues or opposition to be worried about, typically because we would rather not deal with it. We send an email or memo out and assume we have communicated, only to sit in a meeting later or have coffee the next day with someone and find out they didn’t read it. However, a Wide Span Awareness Leader would, a Greenleaf pointed out “see it as it is” and make the necessary adjustments to assumptions and strategies.

Like an out of shape person beginning to exercise, cultivating Wide Span Awareness is extremely discomfortable as it requires us to activate psychological muscles many of us have allowed to remain dormant and have consequently have atrophied over time.  The good news is, like exercise, cultivating Wide Span Awareness is a series of choices. It is choices we make minute by minute, day by day, meeting by meeting.  We must continually chose this work of awareness cultivation for a sustained period of time as a hallmark of our leadership development.

4 Choices for Cultivating Awareness

  • Choice 1Listen Closely
  • Choice 2 Live in Community
  • Choice 3Love Those You Lead
  • Choice 4Look with Intentional Attention

Lets look at each of these a little more closely!

Choice 1Listen Closely – We must choose to hear what those we lead and influence are saying.  We must also listen to what they are not saying.  A silent meeting does not mean agreement. Schedule regular times to let those we lead share how they are feeling and what they are dreaming about.  This is difficult because very few of us are wired to listen.  Most of us have great ideas and seek to share them with others.  However, as Stephen Covey taught us, we must “seek first to understand.” We must choose to listen habitually.

Choice 2 Live in Community – Leaders who barricade themselves off from those they lead or erect relational barriers that prevent community from forming, will never be widely aware of the reality of their situation.  The concept of “management by walking around” was an early nod to the need for leaders to be regularly connection with those they influence, and not in just meetings.  I prefer the idea of management by living in community.  The leaders who have influenced me most profoundly have lived life with me, taken me out for meals and coffee dates. The best leaders have had me over to their house. How often do we engage with those we lead in a social context?  How much do we know about their families, friendships and hobbies? If we don’t know about what is most important to those we lead, why would they follow us for long? And more importantly, how would we ever know what they really think about the things we are working on together?

Choice 3Love Those You Lead – Those we truly love receive sustained attention from us.  If we only spend time with those we lead in meetings and at work, we clearly don’t love them.  If we don’t love those we lead, we will never spend the attention required to cultivate Wide Span Awareness.  Although we don’t get to choose who we like, as that is a matter of preference, we do get to chose who we love.  Love is a choice.  We can chose to show love consistently to those we lead and it will benefit both us and them every time.

Choice 4Look with Intentional Attention – As Robbins said in his Ted Talk “If you don’t attend to something, you can’t be aware of it.” We must choose to be intentional about becoming Wide Span Awareness leaders.  We must implement tools and strategies to ensure we cultivate this in a sustained way.  In my daily planner I make notes for each meeting and coffee date I have with those I lead, to keep track of what I want to ask and what they have told me about their lives.  Every time I have a conversation over coffee or at the desk of one of the people I lead, I try to ask about three areas of their life.  I ask about their family, their personal growth (hobbies, spiritual disciplines and personal habits) and about how work is going. Simply having these things written in my journal ahead of time allows me to ensure the necessary attention, so that I remain aware. “Attention steers perception and controls your reality.”Awareness is impossible without attention!

So, as leaders… let’s learn from a pick pocket (Robbins) and a leadership guru (Greenleaf) today.  Let’s choose to cultivate Wide Span Awareness in every conversation and situation today.  Let’s chose to be One Grip Higher.


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