Leaders are expected to excel in areas like finance, strategy and operations. And they need to be skilled planners, decision makers and visionaries.

There is lot more they need to be able to know and do, but one essential trait that is easily overlooked is the ability to pay attention.

Attention is, quite simply, a foundational human faculty. It is the gateway determining whether information flows into a leader’s conscious cognitive and emotional processes.

If a leader is not attentive to something, his ability to use his knowledge and skills may become compromised.

It means he cannot properly evaluate, decide, listen and empathise, pick up warning signs or ask that one incisive question that gets the ball rolling.

Attention to what?

Of course, there is the matter of what the leader is paying attention to. Reports, financial information, and the stock exchange are all relevant, sure.

But while coaching leaders, I have seen how powerful it is when they pay attention to three more subtle, deeper areas.

A leader’s first attention should be to himself, to the feelings, thoughts, values and beliefs that are experienced in and expressed through the body.

Only when he is attentive to his embodied self, can a leader gain access to his inner wisdom.

This tacit knowing is the source of the leader’s sense of mission, purpose and the pre-logical knowing of what is (dis)advantageous to himself and the organisation.

A leader who pays proper attention to himself can achieve emotional and intellectual maturity and use that as a basis of a higher form of leadership.

Attention to others

A leader’s second attention is to the other person, be it a fellow board member, investor, journalist or the janitor.

Now I don’t mean paying attention to the cognitive content of what is being discussed, but sensing the underlying intentions, emotions, assumptions and beliefs.

This is the iceberg under the surface of the other person that determines so much of the outcome of an interaction.

And while the leader pays attention to the other person, he needs to continue paying attention to himself.

By doing both at the same time, the leader can truly see and acknowledge the other person, while staying true to his own needs and boundaries.

This opens a pathway to deeper understanding, compassion, trust, and generosity, even in the face of conflict.

Attention to the wider world

A leader’s third and final attention is to the wider world, by which I mean the larger systems that transcend the individual leader and his one-on-one interactions.

Now, I am not talking about doing market research or measuring employee engagement. This information is valuable, but only provides half the story.

This is because such systems are governed by invisible rules and principles that can impact the power and influence of the individual leader without him even knowing.

So what a leader needs to do is to cast his attention wide and sense the underlying dynamics of his team, the mood in the organisation or shifts in the market place.

This information behind the information, the changes underneath the changes, are key to a leader’s strategic choices and his personal behaviour.

How to develop attention

One final point I would like to make is that attention is a skill that can be taught.

Attention to self can be trained through, for example, body-based coaching, martial arts or meditation.

Attention to others can also be trained, by learning how to ask incisive question, listening without judgement and listening with the body.

Finally, attention to the wider world is in essence the same as the previous two attentions, only then cast outside the self. This, too, can be taught.

Ilja van Roon.

P.S. You can also read my blog about the importance of our inner life or check out the private 12-day  Leadership Foundation programme.