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An overly intense focus on a goal can lead to what cognitive psychologists call goal neglect. That may seem counterintuitive to the average goal-oriented MBA or entrepreneur, but take, for example, the dynamic at work in micromanagement.
Often, when leaders micromanage employees, an intense focus on task performance distracts those leaders from the larger goals of the company. They obsess over the trees and neglect the forest—and drive employees crazy while they’re at it.
Where you direct your focus is a function of the brain’s attention system. This system has three subsystems:
Meta-awareness is the simultaneous awareness of your focus in the present moment and of the limits of that focus.
It allows us to more fully understand where we sit within the situation. It is the firefighter’s consciousness of where his attention is directed in the moment, which, in turn, enables an awareness of what he might be missing.
We know we can become aware of where our mind is, but oftentimes it’s triggered by some external thing, like taking the wrong exit off the freeway and realizing, ‘Oh my gosh, my mind was totally somewhere else.’ What we want to do is elicit that checking-in quality in our minds with more regularity.
Leaders, especially, don’t want to have to make mistakes to align their focus. Instead, they engage in mental practices that train them to watch their minds, moment by moment.
Imagine sitting on a riverbank on a big boulder that’s sturdy and stable, and watching the contents of your conscious experience flow by as if it were the water itself. You’re not going to go chase every leaf or every fish or whatever you see flowing down the river; you’re going to watch it passing by. You hone meta-awareness by watching your stream of consciousness.
Like many mindfulness exercises, the River of Thought feels at odds with the decisive, action-driven orientation often ascribed to great leaders, but that is the whole point.
It allows us to take a very different stance toward our experience. It’s very rare that we experience something as neutral observers. We usually have a story or an opinion about it, and we’re jumping to action. That can serve leaders poorly. If they make up a story that’s incorrect or jump too quickly in the wrong direction, it’s going to mean trouble.
Watching your mind wander without engaging is easier said than done. But learning to be more conscious of where you are directing your attention—and ensuring that wherever you are focused in a particular moment is the right place to be—seems well worth the effort.
Really exceptional leaders are aware of where their mind is moment by moment, and that means they know when they are vulnerable.
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