Leading in times of change, particularly in times of catastrophic change, requires subtle but profound leadership qualities. One of the most profound qualities of great leaders in times of change is related to the way in which these leaders use their attention.

If you were the recipient of someone else’s attention, you would generally have a different experience if you described their attention as follows:

  • He is looking at me…
  • He is listening to me…

The Difference Between Predatory and Receptive Attention

Most people I have spoken to have a very different experience of these two modalities of attention. When you “look at people”, you are likely to make them feel judged, evaluated, and at worst threatened. Their experience of the second statement, ‘He is listening to me’ is far more positive. They would feel affirmed and accepted.

When you “look at people”, they experience your attention as penetrating and invasive. When you listen however, you will be experienced as kind and accepting. People will have the experience that you are willing to let them in. When the person looks at me they are penetrating me, when they listen to me they are letting me into them. This distinction is the distinction between what we have come to describe as the difference between predatory and receptive attention.

Leading in Times of Change & Predatory Attention

Predatory attention is the attention of the looker. Human beings have predator’s eyes. Like lion’s, our eyes are in the front of our heads. Our eyes are designed to focus on what we want to get. This is why it would be appropriate to ask someone who is eyeballing you “what do you want?”.

Predatory attention is consistent with the intent to get. It wants something from the other. People experience this sort of attention as hostile, just like the attention of a lion is threatening and hostile. Predatory attention turns people into something to be used, like a resource. People become consumables.

Predatory attention is judgemental. It is constantly evaluating the other against preconceived criteria. It seeks to fit the other into taxonomies of significance that are primarily concerned with usefulness. This means that predatory attention is concerned with function. It is expedient. It is only interested in what works.

Predatory Attention & Organisations

Our current organisational narrative is the product of predatory attention. To view the organisation as a system that works is to operate predatory attention. A leader who operates predatory attention will see other people as resources to be employed to achieve objectives. When you operate predatory attention, you articulate and define strategies that focus effort in predetermined processes aimed at outcome.

Predatory attention celebrates the skill of the strategist. It celebrates the skill of the manipulator. It lauds the one who can deduce a particular course of action from an abstract set of principles, fit people into functional pigeon holes and orchestrate the system to arrive at an outcome. Predatory attention thrives on deductive reasoning.

The disadvantage of predatory attention is that it makes people feel used and manipulated. This makes it highly unsuited for leading in times of change. It undermines trust in the people who are the recipients of it and destroys the possibility for collaborative effort. Predatory attention is very poorly suited to leading in times of change because it is only consistent with deductive reasoning. It seeks to force fit novel circumstances onto known categories. It produces a fundamentally adversarial relationship between leaders and followers.

Leading in Times of Change & Receptive Attention

Receptive attention is the attention of the listener. A receptive person considers the contribution required of him; rather than considering only what he can get from the other. Consequently, people experience receptive attention as friendly and accommodating. Receptive attention is interested in how it can be helpful, rather than how it can get something out of the other.

Receptive attention is curious. Rather than being presumptuous, it stands back from the other in order to allow the other to appear, fully, without prejudice. This means that receptive attention looks deeply. It is more concerned with what the other actually is, with meaning, rather than how the other can be made useful. Fundamentally receptive attention is appreciative of the other.

A receptive person will see others as worthy in their own right. Rather than dominating and taking space, receptive attention makes space. Receptive attention will establish a narrative that sees the organisation as a community of people who collaborate. This has profound benefits when leading in times of change.

It is significant in times of catastrophic change for two reasons:

  1. Receptive attention is better able to identify new patterns without presumption or prejudice because it is based in curiosity. It produces the kind of inductive reasoning which is vital when faced with novel situations.
  2. Because receptive attention is fundamentally kind to the other it solicits a fundamentally collaborative intent in others. This collaborative intent also recruits others, particularly subordinates, to own the organizational objective and to bring their initiative to bear on the problem. Any problem that is truly collaboratively solved has to be solved with greater ingenuity than a problem solved on the basis of the intelligence of a single person in charge.

Cultivating Receptive Attention in Leaders

The above suggests that the two skills that a leader needs to cultivate in order to develop receptive attention has to do with a reflective skill to stand back and observe pattern and a communicative skill to actualize these observations in the engagement of people.

Mindfulness and Reflection

A person who engages in practices aimed at quietening internal dialogue will develop their receptive attention. Because predatory attention is concerned with judgement it produces a noisy and clamorous inner experience. This noise serves as a filter to what a person can observe and also produces and experience where the person identifies with their thought. The person therefore does not hold their opinions lightly. He invest so much in his opinions and so he will go to extreme lengths to defend them.

In mindfulness practice the practitioner rests their attention on real experience in the moment. As a consequence, he./she invests less attention into internal dialogue. Consequently, the volume of his internal dialogue will decrease.

The outcome here is that the practitioner operates from a level deeper than her own thoughts and is no longer mired in thought. Thoughts present themselves like clouds in the sky and no longer have a possessive or compelling quality. This means that the practitioner becomes more inwardly gathered when he/she engages in day to day interaction. Disturbing events are less likely to overwhelm this person and they are not a susceptible to their own presumption.

A leader can cultivate mindfulness by making use of numerous activities that serve this end, provided that the activities are engaged in with the intention of cultivating mindfulness. Examples include

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Sport
  • Painting, sculpture
  • Music

Communication

A leader applying predatory attention in solving a problem would have the view that they should sit quietly in a corner and come up with a solution to a problem and then try to recruit others to act accordingly. Language is, by definition, a communal phenomenon. Consequently, this leader will struggle to engage the will of his people because he has not developed a common understanding.

A leader applying receptive attention is able to inspire collaborative ownership of problems by engaging others in the kind of conversation that unlocks their will. The key to making this possible is that the leader ceases to see people as two-dimensional functionaries occupying roles in a system, but rather sees people as people. In my experience the most profound way to achieve this outcome is to afford members of executive teams the opportunity to share their biographies. The degree to which this happens in a team is the degree to which team members see each other as human beings with depth.

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