That Focusing Trick Good Leaders Use To Stay On Task

Don’t let the crisis of the moment distract you from equally (or more) important matters.

Every time I go hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I have a problem—an annoying problem.

Yet, when I am hiking on the trails of the National Forests in the Rocky Mountains, this problem disappears.

Why? Because the U.S. Forest Service has designed its trails to accommodate the outfitters who take the city slickers out to their backcountry campsite for a fishing or hunting expedition. And to ensure that their clients have an enjoyable outdoor experience (all of these outfitters want repeat business and referrals) they bring along lots of equipment, and food, and beer.

To transport these necessities, the outfitters need mules or horses. Thus these trails are wide and gently graded. When I hike up even a small mountain, the trail will have a number of switchbacks making my assent pleasantly gradual.

New Hampshire, however, is not called “The Granite State” for nothing. Neither the terrain nor the trails are designed to accommodate horses. Too many rocks. As a result, whenever I hike in the White Mountains, I face the same dilemma: Where should I focus my eyes?

Sadly, I have two conflicting choices.

Choice No. 1: Focus on where I will place my foot for the next step? If I fail to concentrate on this, I am apt to become painfully aware that the rock on which I had planned to put my foot wasn’t quite where my brain remembered it was.

Choice No. 2: Focus 10 steps ahead. If I fail to concentrate on this, I might suddenly discover that I am stuck on the wrong part of the trail with no obvious place for my next step. Even worse, I might discover that I have hiked off the trail and thus have to figure out where it really is and then bushwhack back.

All public managers—even if they have never hiked up a path more physically challenging than their local Capitol Street—face a conceptually similar problem.

Certainly, every public manager should always start with purpose. But once an agency’s leadership team has chosen its purpose—and gained the support necessary to begin pursuing it—on what should the members of the team concentrate their attention?

  • Should they focus on the precise step that they need to take today?

  • Should they focus on thinking about steps that they will need to take next week or next month?

The good news, of course, is the leadership team has multiple sets of eyes. They could assign some team members to focus on what needs to be done today, while asking others to think about what they will need to be doing next week, or next month, or at some critical time—or times—in the future.

Still, there will always be the crisis of the day: Oops, yesterday we twisted an ankle; how do we recover? Or what should we do to ensure that we don’t lose our way?

If the leadership team isn’t careful, the challenge (or anxiety) created by the very careful focus on today’s foot could mean that in a week or three, the team could find itself off the trail, lost in a confusing muddle of bushes, trees, boulders and a meandering stream that might, or might not, actually be the trail.

Unfortunately, we humans find it is difficult to simultaneously focus on two different tasks. We flit back and forth between them. Indeed, how can anyone concentrate effectively on two different and fully demanding chores? And how do we cope when the number of demanding chores escalates to three or 13?

All public managers have to focus attention on both the next step for accomplishing their purpose and— simultaneously—on the steps that their organization will have to take 10 days, 10 weeks, and 10 months in the future. Both are necessary to accomplish their public purpose.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service is not going to ride to the rescue with a broad, smoothly graded, easy-to-follow trail.

Robert D. Behn, a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, chairs the executive education program Driving Government Performance: Leadership Strategies that Produce Results. His book, The PerformanceStat Potential, was published by Brookings. (Copyright 2016 Robert D. Behn)