Directing Attention For Effective Leadership M.S.Srinivasan

Our human organism or consciousness is rich with many faculties and powers. One of the most important among them is the faculty of attention which means the ability to direct and fix our attention on an object. This essay is a review of an article in Harvard Business Review on this subject of attention and its application for leadership by the well-known psychologist, Daniel Goleman, who conceived the idea of emotional intelligence. This review looks at the article by Goleman in the light of Yogic psychology.

The Advent of Yoga in Management

This faculty of attention is very well known in the spiritual and Yogic traditions of the east; it is the basis of what is called as meditation, concentration or mindfulness. The yogis of the east used this faculty extensively for their spiritual development. As eastern religious and spiritual thoughts and practices entered into the west, initially, interest in them was confined to a few thinkers, scholars and seekers. But later, scientific mind of the west took a large interest in Yoga and meditation and so many studies and research were conducted on the effect and benefits of meditation on health and wellbeing of our body and mind. At present, there is a growing interest in the west in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Sometimes back US military has made it a part of the training programme for their soldiers. Recently, British government has included mindfulness as a part of curriculum in all its government schools. And now the pragmatic mind in business and management is exploring the concepts and practices of eastern thoughts and practices and its practical implications for management and leadership. This article under review, The Focused Leader by Daniel Goleman in Harvard Business Review, belonged to this category of enquiry or studies.

The spiritual purist may despise these recent developments as dilution of spirituality for mundane aims. But there is nothing intrinsically spiritually in practices like meditation, mindfulness and concentration. They are mainly mental methods and techniques for harnessing the powers of the mind. They have acquired a spiritual association or connotation because these practices were used by yogis for their spiritual development and achieving spiritual aims. But there is nothing fundamentally wrong if these practices are used for mundane aims.

The Faculty of Attention

What is precisely this faculty of attention? It is the ability to focus the awareness and energy of our mind or consciousness on a particular object. This object may be an outer object or an inner object like a thought, idea or a feeling within us. Daniel Goleman classified the modes of attention into three categories; focusing on oneself, focusing on others, and focusing on the world. Goleman explains: “Grouping these modes of attention into three broad buckets – focusing on yourself, focusing on others, and focusing on the wider world – sheds new light on the practice of many essential leadership skills. Focusing inward and focusing constructively on others helps leaders cultivate the primary elements of emotional intelligence. A fuller understanding of how they focus on the wider world can improve their ability to device strategy and manage innovation.”

Here are some interesting passages from the article which shows how some of the traditional ideas and practices of Indian Yoga on meditation, concentration, mindfulness, willpower, and control over desires are entering into and accepted by the mainstream thinking in management and psychology.

*Attention is a mental muscle; like any other muscle, it can be strengthened through the right kind of exercise. The fundamental step for building deliberate attention is simple: when your mind wanders, notice that it has wandered, bring it back to your desired points of focus and keep it there as long as you can. That basic exercise is at the root of virtually every kind of meditation. Meditation builds concentration and calmness and facilitates recovery from the agitation of stress.

*A variety of focus that is useful here is open awareness, in which we broadly notice that what’s going on in and around us without getting caught up or swept away by any particular thing. In this mode we don’t judge, censor or tune out; we simply perceive.

*‘’Cognitive control” is the scientific term for putting one’s attention where one wants it and keeping it there in the face of temptation to wander.

*How we focus holds the key to exercising willpower. Three truths of cognitive control are at play when you pit self-restraint against self-gratification; the ability to voluntarily disengage your focus from an object of desire; the ability to resist distraction so that you don’t gravitate back to that object; and the ability to concentrate on the future goal and imagine how good you feel when you achieve it.

The Light of Mindfulness

 In the yogic perspective, our consciousness has two aspects: awareness and energy. At the mental level, awareness manifests itself as the essential awareness of the mind, which is the Light of Attention and the energy aspect expresses itself in the active part of the mind as thoughts, feelings and will. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness helps to separate the awareness aspect from the energy aspect of the mind. The main principle of the discipline is inner detachment from all the inner movements of our consciousness which means not to identify with them and also not to judge them as good or bad or pass comments on them. Here is a passage from a Mahayana Buddhist text on a form of mindfulness practice:

“Think not of the past. Think not of the future. Think not thou art actually engaged in meditation—-. Whatever thoughts, or concepts or obscuring (or disturbing) passion arise are neither to be abandoned or allowed to control one; they are to be allowed to rise without one’s trying to direct (or shape) them. If one do more than merely to recognise them as soon as they arise, and persist in so doing, they will come to be realised (or to dawn) in their true form though not being abandoned.”

The other part of the discipline of mindfulness is alert vigilance. The ideal here is not to allow even a single thought, feeling or sensation to go unconscious – to be fully conscious with an alert mind the entire origin and process of all the moments of our consciousness, as they rise, stay or pass out of our awareness.

From the point of view of leadership, the most important domain of attention is to observe our inner reactions to people, things, events and circumstances and how we form our opinions and judgements and decisions. We can see how our likes and dislikes, preferences, biases and prejudges and our natural or temperamental inclination subtly influences our opinions and judgements. Mindfulness will help the leader to inwardly detach her inner self from her outer personality and see how the opinions, feelings and reactions of this surface persona influences her judgement and decision. This will help the leader to liberate her consciousness from all personal elements and keep it impersonal and objective, which can see things as they are without any personal reactions and enhance her capacity to arrive at better decisions. 

The Power of Concentration

Mindfulness is only one part or aspect of developing the power of attention. The other part or aspect is the power of concentration, which means the ability to focus all the awareness and energy of our mind in a single object and keep it as long as we want. The importance of concentration for a leader is obvious.

Our mind is a form of energy, mental energy. And any form of energy, physical, vital, mental or spiritual, when it is focussed and concentrated magnifies its power of action and effectiveness. In the physical level, Laser is a concrete example to show how concentration can increases the effective forces of an energy. Laser is concentrated light energy which can penetrate and drill through steel. In the same way, when the mental energy is concentrated into sharp and intense focus, it enhances its light and power in almost all its parameters of performance – efficiency, knowledge, insight, penetration, depth efficiency, power. As the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram describes what concentration can do to a person.

“….Whatever you may want to do in life, one thing is absolutely indispensable and at the basis of everything, the capacity of concentrating the attention. If you are able to gather together the rays of attention and consciousness on one point and can maintain this concentration with a persistent will, nothing can resist….. You can be the best athlete, you can be the best student, literary or scientific genius, you can be the greatest saint with that faculty. And every one has in himself a tiny little beginning of it – it is given to everybody, but people do not cultivate it’’.

For a more detailed discussion on this subject of concentration in the corporate context readers may see the following articles of this reviewer in this blog:

  1. Power of concentration for Enhancing Productivity.
  2. Power of Focus

 Qualities of the Heart

However, mindfulness and concentration are not enough to become a truly effective leader. Concentration is like a double edged sword. It can be used for good or bad purposes. In Indian Mythology, the dark forces called Asuras are described as beings with great powers of concentration, but they use this power for selfish aims and to conquer and subjugate their enemies. Similarly, in an English novel, the author describes a terrorist who sits in a classical meditative posture in desert sands, calms his mind, concentrates inwards and gets a brilliant idea on how to kidnap the president of America!

To become a truly effective leader, powers of the mind like concentration has to serve the qualities of the heart like empathy, compassion, kindness, benevolence. Here is an interesting story on this idea from the Indian tradition.

A king comes to a spiritual teacher with his young son and says “Sir, this young boy will be the next king and inherit my kingdom. I want him to be an ideal king. How to train him to be the best king?” The teacher says “Leave him with me for three months. I will make him a true leader”. The king agrees and leaves his son with the teacher. The next day, from morning to noon the teacher narrates to the boy many stories on kindness, compassion and benevolence. And in the evening, the teacher says to the boy “In the morning, you have heard so many stories on kindness. Now, in the evening you go out into the world and practice what you have learnt from these stories. Try to find as many opportunities as possible to be kind, compassionate and helpful to people you come across. This will be the training programme for you everyday for the next three months, until your father comes to take you back”.

After three months, the king comes back to take his son. The teacher says to the king “I have trained your son to be a true ruler. He has acquired the heart of an ideal king. He will not misuse his power for his own selfish ends. He will serve the people in your kingdom with compassion and kindness”.

In this article under review, Daniel Goleman recognises the importance of these qualities of the heart for leadership. But the discussion is highly analytical using the concept and terminology of Empathy. He classifies empathy into three categories:

  1. Cognitive empathy: ability to understand the other person’s perspective.
  2. Emotional empathy: ability to feel what other person falls.
  3. Empathetic concern: the ability to sense what other person needs from you.

However, this approach appears to be a little too mental. Secondly, in this article Goleman doesn’t say anything about how to develop empathy or other qualities of the heart which we have mentioned earlier. Here comes the importance of the yogic approach to the cultivation of the heart and its qualities.

According to the Integral Psychology of Sri Aurobindo, there are two hearts in us. First is the lower emotional being, which is the source of negative feelings like anger, jealousy, and violence. The other one is the deeper psychic heart where dwells the soul or the divinity in us. This psychic heart is the source of all higher feelings like love, generosity, kindness, benevolence, compassion. For awakening the qualities of the psychic heart, we have to pursue a two-fold disciplines. First one is to reject all negative feelings which comes from the lower heart, not by struggling with it, but not identifying with it as our own, with an inner detachment. Second discipline is to consciously cultivate all the positive feelings which belong to the deeper psychic heart. For a leader, the main qualities which need to be cultivated are:

* A genuine concern for the wellbeing of others.

* Understanding of the inner and outer needs and aspirations of each individual and the group and making a sincere attempt to fulfil them as much as possible within the constraints of the organisation.

* Extending a helpful hand to people for resolving their difficulties and problems.

* Generosity of the heart and a merciful attitude which is willing to forgive mistakes and helps people to learn from their errors.

There are some more factors which can help in awakening the psychic heart:

* Purification of the mind and heart from all forms of self-seeking in our thought, feelings, motives and actions. An alert mindfulness can help in this task of self-purification. And on the positive side consciously cultivate the attitude of self-giving in our inner movements and outer acts.

* Regular meditation on the psychic heart, turning the attention inward towards the depth of the heart and if we are of the religious and spiritual type visualising the Divine as dwelling in the heart.

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