How Great Leaders Show “Triple Focus”

Leaders must move nimbly between concentrating on themselves and others, writes Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

Everyone in a leadership role should be handed a specialized pair of goggles that zoom in and out, helping the leader focus on three crucial levels. What would the goggles bring into focus?

1. The leader’s self: sharp awareness of his or her own thoughts and feelings and how they impact his performance.

2. The people around the leader: close attention to those with whom they regularly interact, including the ability to truly understand the thoughts and sense the feelings of those people.

3. The larger world: a broad view of the dynamics within the organization and how that work is impacted by the world beyond the immediate workplace.

I’ve written extensively about this “triple focus” needed by leaders, both with my friend Peter Senge and on my own in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Each shares this key message: Focus matters. Leaders must guide their own attention and that of their team and organization. A skillful leader knows when to focus inward, when to attend to others around him, and when to scan the wider horizon.

To skillfully navigate different levels of focus, leaders need Emotional Intelligence—the ability to recognize their own and others’ emotions, to manage their feelings, and to interact effectively with others. EI includes twelve leadership competencies, which are learned and learnable skills. Three competencies specifically correlate to the different levels of focus: Emotional Self-Awareness, Empathy, and Organizational Awareness. Korn Ferry Hay Group research found that among leaders with multiple strengths in Emotional Self-Awareness, 92 percent had teams with high energy and high performance.

Another key competency: Adaptability. With Adaptability, leaders can handle many different demands on their attention but stay focused on their larger goals. They can recognize new challenges when they arise and are nimble in their ability to adjust to sudden change.

Here’s an example of Focus and Emotional Intelligence in action.

Chris, a regional director for a global surgical supply company, glanced at his watch then gazed out the window. What Chris saw wasn’t a cityscape, but rather his inner landscape and that of the people about to arrive for a meeting. Chris felt tension in his gut as he rehearsed his message for the meeting. For a year, he’d used his “see the broad picture” skills to alert others in his company about the potential of a hostile takeover and to strategize ways to protect their firm. Today, he had to tell team leaders attending this meeting that the merger had been finalized and the new CEO was eliminating their divisions.

In the moments before the meeting, Chris turned his attention toward himself and the team leaders. Simultaneously, Chris felt anger about how these changes would hurt people he’d known for years and fear that they’d blame him. He also could imagine their anger and distress. Taking some deep breaths, Chris committed to using the power of his own feelings to fuel his work to strengthen the company and to help the team leaders as they transitioned out of the company. After the meeting, Chris knew he must turn his attention to navigating the company’s new terrain.

That’s triple focus.