Real Leaders Don’t Have the Attention Spans of Squirrels

Jim Taggart's picture

How many times have you been talking to your boss when their wireless rings and they grab for it wildly, have a short chat then back to you, only then to be diverted by another call or a co-worker walking in on the conversation to ask a non-related question. The boss obliges, then back to you. But only to suddenly blurt out something non-related such as, “Oh, yeah, would you mind doing up a Powerpoint presentation on project xyz.”

You try to keep the conversation on track since you need your boss to understand an important issue you’re facing with your project. However, he (or she – let’s be fair here) is now checking his email, trying to keep an eye on you to give the impression he’s listening to you.

But you know otherwise.

You’re feeling ignored and getting frustrated. “What the hell is wrong with this guy; he’s my manager and he’s unable to focus because he’s trying to multitask.”

Meet Manager Squirrel, no longer a rare breed in organizations.

Like a true squirrel this type of manager is proliferating in organizations, whether in business or in government. And they’re killing productivity, contributing to the loss of depth in knowledge work and sucking the life out of personal creativity. Remember, we’re supposed to be knowledge workers, supposedly using our brains to make a difference in our organizations’ effectiveness.

It’s actually astounding that any substantial work gets accomplished when people are pulled in all directions because of the craving need for instant responses to questions that are fired at them through email, instant messaging, texts or phone calls. There’s no down-time to think, or what’s been called “strategic white space.” Yet in a brutally competitive world that’s precisely what we need to do.

For those of us leading others, in whatever capacity, there’s a vital need to not only unplug ourselves from time to time to reflect and think, but to also ensure that our team members do the same.

As much as Gen Y and Gen X are connected via the Web, raising the bar on what it means to multitask, the shallowness this form of working brings to the knowledge and creativity arena bodes poorly for the future when it comes to organizations being able to compete globally. Or in the case of government, how public servants engage in deeper policy-related work to address society’s issues.

Having a workforce of squirrels is NOT in the best interests of Canada and the United States when you consider the future.

So the next time one of your staff comes up to you to initiate a conversation, ignore your phone when it rings. Look away from your laptop. Close the lid if you have to. When a rude co-worker tries to butt in, tell her you’ll get back to her. Focus on the person in front of you.

Live in the present.

Take time regularly to reflect and think about from where you’ve come and to where you’re going. What are you learning? What do you need to learn? And what about your team?

And if you’re not a formal leader? Then step up to the plate and initiate the conversation with your teammates and team leader. Show your leadership.

Don’t be a squirrel.

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson