Paying Attention

Heeding the signs around us makes us better leaders


I’ve been getting all kinds of signals over the last couple of days that I can’t force things to happen the way I want them to.  Acting in a way that doesn’t fit with the larger environment is a recipe for disappointment, too much ineffective work, and unhappy surprises.

An example: Coming home after an early morning trip to the gas station, I stopped at a busy intersection where I still had the green light because I could see the traffic was backed up on the other side.  I inched forward, though not into the intersection, because I thought it might clear in time for me to make it across.

The very assertive crossing guard had a different plan for me.  He started blowing his whistle from across the road and motioning for me to back up.  Not only me, but the car behind me too.  The light hadn’t even turned yellow yet.

Of course, I began to feel indignant and a little embarrassed: “Who are you to tell me what to do?”

In the end, he was absolutely right.  My car was blocking the crosswalk where a mother and her two young kids needed to cross to get to school.  With his experience of the timing of the lights and flow of traffic, he knew there was no way I was getting through on this sequence.

I used the forty seconds at the red light to take a few deep breaths, soothe my bruised sense of superiority, and recognize what had just happened.

As I moved slowly forward at the next green, I caught the officer’s eye, smiled, and gave him an appreciative wave.

If I can’t impose my will on the situation, does that leave me with total surrender?  Passivity and being only reactive?  Putting myself at the mercy of others and circumstances?

Of course not.  

Paying attention and responding to what you find is quite a long way from either of these other options.  Power and influence come from noticing what’s going on and finding the right moment.

I was at a talk last night being given by consultant and author Rick Maurer during which he reviewed six principles for building commitment.  These come from his book Why Don’t You Want What I Want? and include:

  • Know your intention
  • Consider the context
  • Avoid knee jerk reactions
  • Pay attention
  • Explore deeply
  • Find ways to connect

In the aggregate, these principles remind us of the paradoxical truth that in order to be influential we need to open up to being influenced ourselves.

Only then do we stand a chance of getting what it is we want.