Is focus the secret to great leadership?

We have a big job, us leaders.

We shape organizational culture, we keep business goals in laser-sharp focus, we develop people, and we achieve goal after goal keeping as many people happy as possible.

And, we love it, don’t we?

One of the main reasons that I love learning, teaching, and writing about leadership is because leadership inherently holds humanness at the center of everything. It’s all about how to harness, shift, and guide people, with all their idiosyncrasies, towards a shared, desired outcome.

Let’s take a minute to think about the complexity of that.

We’re human. Real, living, breathing – entirely flawed – humans.

We make mistakes.

We see things that don’t exist.

We feel things that we created in our own minds.

And, as leaders, we’re meant to take ALLLL of those nuances into account across multiple people, teams and situations and lead in a way that suits all and guides all towards the same place. Not to mention having awareness around how our own perspectives and experiences are shaping any given scenario.

Sometimes it’s a miracle that it ever even works, isn’t it?

How, then, do the great leaders do it? What is the secret to great leadership?

I don’t propose there’s one magic answer.  Instead, in the Coach’s Questions blog I like to explore numerous truths, to help you find the ones that resonate most for you.  Today, I think we’ve hit upon a big one — In short, it’s a matter of where, and how, we apply our focus.

Great leaders have a delicate but crucial balance of focusing between emotional intelligence and mindfulness.

Let me explain.

Why focusing on emotional intelligence is central to leadership

Emotional intelligence is our ability to understand and respond to our own emotions and the emotional needs of others. In leadership, the greater capacity we have to identify, anticipate, understand and respond to emotions, the faster and more efficiently we achieve the objectives of the organization and the people in it.

Great leaders balance their focus between self-awareness and empathy to ensure that they can be their best in any situation while pulling out the best in others.


This may seem like a bold statement but if you aren’t self-aware, you can’t be a great leader. Self-awareness allows you to understand how you contribute to a situation (for better or for worse). It helps you try to improve, when you need to, and it helps you apply your greatest strengths, when you need to.  It also allows you to anticipate how things might unfold for you so you can plan ahead.

For example, if you know that your mood is affected after weekend business trips because you haven’t had enough downtime, then you wouldn’t schedule a staff feedback or development meeting on the Monday following a weekend business trip.

Self-awareness is also important as it relates to your intuition. We all have thoughts and feelings going through our heads and emotional intelligence means understanding when it’s your intuition speaking and when it might be circumstances. For example, it means knowing in the moment that you might be tired or not at your best and knowing not to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that come up at that time.

There are several ways to improve self-awareness over time to help support your leadership growth.

1. Ask for feedback from your team, family, and friends. Work with a mentor to help you develop a few questions to help you get more information on how you show up in your work and professional relationships.

2. Track your thoughts and feelings for two weeks. Keep a paper or online journal of the events in your life and how you’re feeling before and after the events. This should give you a sense of what things in your life are energizing and which are draining so you can plan accordingly.

3. Observe any times of tension. If at anytime you find yourself feeling tense or frustrated, spend a few minutes reflecting on what may be the root cause of the tension or frustration. Is it when you’re thrown a curveball? Or, perhaps when people don’t do what they say they will? Over time, you notice themes and will be able to develop strategies to help you avoid that situation the next time.


Self-awareness is one type of inward-focus of emotional intelligence while empathy is a powerful external focus of emotional intelligence. In short, empathy is observing and understanding another person’s emotional state.

As leaders, this helps us again to pivot and shift as needed to help us, and the team member, stay on track towards the organization’s goals and objectives.

Perhaps you have an employee whom you know is going through some personal challenges. Empathy allows you to maybe adjust your expectations during that time or communicate extra clearly to support the team member,

Empathy allows you to put yourself in that person’s shoes and focus on what they may need as opposed to how they’re falling short in some way (ie. seeing the world through their eyes, rather than just yours).

A few tips to improving empathy are:

1. Make it a habit to ask, first, what might be going on for this person.  Know that they might not always be willing or able to express it, but this helps you put yourself in a position of looking at the whole person.

2. Ask questions and listen for the answer. When asking your team how they are, or how their weekend was, genuinely listen to the answer. Pay attention to body language. Does their response make them physically expand or contract?

Why focusing on mindfulness is central to leadership

Ok, so, we’re focusing on being self-aware and empathizing with others as well as on the organizational goals.

Got it?

How then does mindfulness come into play?

Mindfulness is an openness and a state of being present that allows you to really observe, really understand, and really listen in the moment. Mindfulness gives an extra boost to emotionally intelligent leaders.

It allows you to pay attention in the moment to ensure that you’re aware of emotions and states of being are taken into account. For example, if we go back to the example of Monday after a weekend business trip, you may be tired and feeling overstretched. A mindful leader will keep this information at the forefront of their mind while they move through their day and adjust their actions in any given moment to account for their altered state of being.  They’ll be really aware of how they’re responding to situations and how the weekend business trip is affecting their response.

To learn a bit more check out our 4 practical tips to mindful leadership.

In Summary

Great leaders are great because of where they focus their attention. It’s not just on the organizational goals, their own personal development or their team. It’s a balance between developing their own self-awareness and empathy, while remaining present, while keeping the organizational goals in sight.  It’s tough.  And it’s rewarding.

Coach’s Question

How have you responded to things happening in your life today?  What affected the way you responded?  Were you focused more internally, or externally? How might your responses today have been different if you were more mindful and aware of what was driving your response?

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