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Just a second ...

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 3 July 2018
We get 86,400 of them every day.

Seconds. We barely notice them. But a lot can happen in a second.

In one second our Earth will travel 29 kilometres on its trip around the Sun. Thirty stars will explode. There will be 40,000 Google searches. Ten thousand Cokes will be consumed. Three hundred websites will be created. Four babies will be born. Two people will die. More than one plane will take off. Your heart will (probably) beat at least once.

It may not sound like much but that second can make a world of difference. A lot can be lost or gained in a second. A second can change your life. Or someone else's. That second can be the difference between a foolish comment or a wise one. It can make a friend or an enemy. It can create clarity from confusion.

In a second we can consciously choose our response rather than defaulting unconsciously to "autopilot" reactions to the things that happen to us, around us and even inside us. These autopilot responses can, of course, sometimes be useful to us, providing shortcuts of convenience. Others, though, can hinder our effectiveness.

I was struck by this idea of the power of a second while reading the new book by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter called The Mind of the Leader. As the title suggests, they are making the case for mindful leadership leadership that practices conscious presence, attention and awareness. The late Peter Drucker observed that "You cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first". Self-management begins with mindfulness, which the authors of The Mind of the Leader define as "paying attention, in the present moment, with a calm, focused, and clear mind".

It's a simple principle and a sensible one. But it doesn't happen without effort.

The economist, political and organisational scientist Herbert Simon made a telling observation about our operating environment when he said that "In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it".

This wealth of information and poverty of attention is the reality Davenport and Beck describe in The Attention Economy when they say that "Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success".

"At the center of the practice of mindfulness is learning to manage your attention," say Hougaard and Carter. "When you learn how to manage your attention, you learn how to manage your thoughts. You learn to hold focus on what you choose in other words, you train yourself to be more present in the here and now."

That presence may be established in a conscious second - a second between "stimulus and response", a second between situation and autopilot.

"In a busy, distracted work life, focus and awareness - the two central characteristics of mindfulness - are the key qualities for effective mental performance and self-management. Focus is the ability to be single-mindedly directed in what you do. Awareness is the ability to notice what is happening around you as well as inside your own mind."

These skills play out in an apparently simple but profound way as they enable us to get "one second ahead of your autopilot reactions and behaviors" the authors explain. (Their previous book was titled One Second Ahead.)

In one attentive second we can consciously remind ourselves of what we need to be focused on, what's important, what matters, what we value. In one self-aware second we can take a breath and give ourselves space to establish awareness of what is happening, what we need to do, and what reactions we need to manage in order to achieve the outcome we want.

Being mindful enables what one CEO calls "disciplined presence".

And our presence is what others notice. Are we "showing up"? How are we showing up? Does our presence encourage others to show up fully and confidently?

A 2017 Bain & Company study identified thirty-three important leadership characteristics. But one quality was established as clearly being the most essential: "centeredness - the ability to be mindfully present in a situation so that you can bring your best traits to bear, moment to moment".

It's what is sometimes called "the power of the pause" - the conscious decision to stop, take a breath, focus and create awareness about the moment you're in and the people you're with.

Maybe just a second. But that second has great value if it means the difference between being focused, aware and present.

As one senior executive in The Mind of the Leader noted: "If you're not focused, if you're not present, it's discouraging to other people. They lose motivation. If you're not present, I think you may as well not have the meeting."

If you're interested in more on this topic I have written a 3-page summary of The Mind of the Leader, which I'll be happy to send to you on request.

And if you'd like to learn more about self awareness and self management, check out our Leading with Emotional Intelligence workshop.

Aubrey Warren

Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies

Davenport, T.H. & Beck, J.C. (2002). The Attention Economy: Understanding the new currency. Accenture.
Hougaard, R. & Carter, J. (2018). The Mind of the Leader: How to lead yourself, your people and your organization for extraordinary results. Harvard Business Review Press.

Hougaard, R., Carter, J., Coutts, G. (2016). One Second Ahead: Enhance your performance at work with mindfulness. Palgrave Macmillan.
Garton, E. (2017). How to be an inspiring leader, Bain & Company. http://www.bain.com/publications/articles/how-to-be-an-inspiring-leader-hbr.aspx

Simon, H.A. (1971). Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World, in Greenberger, M. Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest. The Johns Hopkins Press. EQ and Situational Leadership®.

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2018

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