Higher Leadership = Intentional and Attentional

Out of all the performance attributes separating great leaders from lesser ones, there are two I’ve found most critical: being “intentional” and “attentional.” That is, high-level leaders plan and act purposely, not just reflexively nor haphazardly, and also develop skills for fine-controlling their attention to note what’s going on, unpredictable reactions, and how plans are progressing so they can make real-time adjustments to stay on track.

Being intentional—this is a prime mover; how highest-level leaders make things happen. Intentional leaders control their mindset, knowing where they want to go and then doing their utmost to move in that direction (i.e. their words and actions further their objectives, even if to a small degree). This doesn’t mean they are “wooden” nor act like a train plowing down pre-set, unchangeable tracks, just consistent. It’s as if they’ve activated an internal GPS by entering their destination; then, even if they take a wrong turn they calmly reroute to get to their destination.

They’re reliable, the opposite of haphazard or all over the place. Others know where these leaders stand in all they do or don’t. They emit few ambiguous messages; and don’t tell stories or jokes that counter or neutralize the direction they wish to move. They are determined to weed out mixed messaging and hire and promote people who are aligned with their mission— not those, for example, who are pro-productivity but anti-strong-safety.

Ultimately, they follow their North Star, developing a range of options and responses that work within their values. Then, they choose which best fits their current situation. Others tend to trust these leaders’ consistent intent and so are comfortable with them, even when they don’t fully agree with these leaders’ positions. Further, it immeasurably boosts trust when intentional leaders are seen as actually concerned about others’ safety and well-being.

Now take attention, which plays a large part in the heart of any skill, health, every relationship and all change. This isn’t just my perspective. Tom Peters, author of numerous articles and books (including the best seller, “In Search of Excellence”), wrote that in his long experience working with an array of organizations, everything he’s learned could be boiled down into five words, “Attention is all there is.” Meaning, what you put your attention to is what you focus on, develop and then work to achieve. And what you don’t see (for a variety of reasons), you can’t fix or adjust to. Not only that, but it can blindside you.

Here’s the flip-side of attention. Those who direct their attention to complaining, conflating, condemning, catastrophizing or other counterproductive approaches will likely become accomplished at this. Walk in the land of the lame and learn to limp. I know some who perpetually dwell on the half-empty part of any cup, with an Eeyore-like despondency of a dark cloud of something-will-inevitably-go-wrong perpetually hovering over their heads. They’ve effectively practiced becoming black-belts at seeing and dwelling in the destitute land of can’t-do helplessness and hopelessness.

When applied to safety leadership, such can’t-doers often assume the worst in the nature of others: that workers don’t care about their own safety, are stupid, out of control children with no work ethic and aren’t concerned with others’ well-being. I bet you’ve heard some of this.

Consider attention as the action arm of mindfulness. “Now” is attention’s watchword. Attention has two dimensions: direction and width. Meaning, attention can be directed externally or internally. And can also be widened or narrowed. Basically, there are four basic quadrants of attention: Broad External (over scanning the environment, seeing the big picture), Narrow External (focusing in on the details of a task without getting distracted by ambient stimuli), Broad Internal (adjusting physical balance is a great example, sensing how multiple body parts and movements continually interplay to affect stability), and Narrow Internal (self-monitoring/ checking in on one part of the body to see if tension or discomfort mounts).

Attention control encompasses both receiving information and also consciously shifting what to observe. I’ve found that fully seeing and listening to another person is one of the most powerful ways to strengthen that relationship, to forge an alliance, to accrue previously hidden information.

Most importantly, bear in mind that controlling attention is a skillset which, like all leadership abilities, anyone can better develop with the right practices, not a birth-set genetically gifted only to a fortunate few.

So instead of reflexively telling others to just pay attention to safety, the best leaders work to elevate their own skills in this arena. And in over three decades with a slew of companies worldwide, we’ve found that developing self-monitoring attention skills is critical for dramatically reducing strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls and hand injuries.

To strengthen this skillset, I practice purposely widening and then narrowing attention—not just visual, but also what I hear and kinesthetically feel. Taking time to look around (external attention) in new ways, then consciously self-monitoring my balance, internal forces (e.g. over what part of my feet does most of my weight fall when standing?), areas of accumulating physical tensions and more. There is a lot to this but even a little such practice can open up a world of heightened perception and control.

I also suggest extending external attention to check in with others you trust: “How intentional do you see me versus how haphazard or unpredictable do I come across?” “Do I at times send mixed messages?” “Or do I undercut my own stated values, goals or objectives to any degree?” Consider promoting others becoming more intentional and attentional; of course, this will help anyone become a more effective leader for themselves and others—and also boost their personal Safety and well-being.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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