‘Leadership Leads You to Be Overwhelmed. That’s Just a Fact of Life’

UPDATED: January 30, 2016
PUBLISHED: July 9, 2015

Contrary to what most people might think, the biggest obstacle to maintaining focus isn’t distractions. Interruptions, overscheduling, smartphones and the like are not solely to blame for a leader’s wandering attention and lack of effectiveness, says John Addison.

No, the real problem is that leaders tend to focus on what interests them rather than on those things they can directly control, says the author, speaker and former co-CEO of Primerica. This simple distinction can make all the difference in both productivity and profit, Addison says.

“The reality is almost no one reading this article has any control over what the government’s going to do or what the weather’s going to be like,” Addison says. “But people spend all their time focused on things they can’t control. In truth, there are only two things you can control: your attitude and your work ethic.”

Related: 7 Things Great Leaders Never Do Again

Get in Gear

Addison credits a professor he had while working on his MBA in the 1980s with an analogy that helped shape his own effectiveness as a business leader—including his ability to help build the billion-dollar Primerica, guide the company through the recession and ultimately take it public.

The professor, T.P. Hall, made the comments near the end of Addison’s last semester at Georgia State University. Hall explained that when a person is at the top of an organization, he or she functions like a big gear. Any tiny movement by the leader engages the smaller adjacent gears, causing them to make somewhat bigger movements. In turn, the next smaller gears make even bigger movements, and by the time all the gears are engaged, the tiniest ones are spinning furiously. All because of one tiny movement by the biggest gear.

Addison remembers his professor asking, “So what happens if you keep changing your mind and moving in different directions in your organization? That’s right. You break the teeth off of all the gears that are holding the whole thing up.”

To avoid this chaotic damage to an organization, Addison says leaders have to be extremely clear and consistent in their focus. The further up they are in their organizations, the more important their focus  becomes.

“You’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing,” Addison says, “and that’s what you and your team can impact. You’ve got to stay focused on what’s most important and don’t allow yourself to get sidetracked into things that really don’t matter. Most people are like an octopus on roller skates—a whir of activity with no direction. They spend their lives attracted to their distractions. They’re focused on what interests them, not on what they can impact.”

Even the smallest unintentional distractions caused by the leader can set those smaller gears turning—a casual conversation with team members, for example. “The further up you go,” Addison says, “the more you lose the right to muse aloud. You can’t just sit around and let out random thought bursts. You’ll have people running around and starting projects that you didn’t even need them to work on.”

Leaders have to be purposeful with their words and actions, and make sure they align with their main focus, he says.

Related: 12 Things All Effective Leaders Do

Work on What You Think About

They also need to be mindful about their own mindsets. “If you start out realizing that every day you get to spend on the right side of the grass is a good day, you have a head start on most of the world,” Addison says.

He adds that this kind of grateful, positive outlook doesn’t come naturally to most people. “You have to work very hard on how you think. Work on what you allow into your brain. I promise you, sitting there staring at the news and thinking the world is screwed up is not going to make the world any better. I wish to heck I could wiggle my nose and fix the problems in the Middle East. The reality is I can’t. Sitting around and allowing myself to become jaded by what’s going on in the world is not going to do anything but make me dysfunctional.”

Just as people protect their families with insurance, Addison says leaders should protect their minds, as if they had thought insurance. Of all the influences in their lives, their thoughts are the source of wins or losses. Not the economy, not the competition and not their teams. What’s going on inside their heads can make or break their businesses, he says.

To get fired up and focused on those main goals, Addison suggests reading motivational books or articles and biographies of great and positive leaders, listening to self-improvement programs or audios while commuting, or watching motivational videos. As any leader begins the day, her first goal should be to take control of her attitude before the world does.

Focus on Your Work Ethic

Addison has many leadership heroes, but Winston Churchill has been one of the greatest influences in his life and career. When Churchill first took office as prime minister of England in 1940, the nation was in crisis as World War II raged in Europe. Churchill’s task was to respond to the chaos and adversity with principle and  calm.

Over the course of the war, Churchill proved to be a man of uncanny strength, toughness and perseverance in executing intricate plans. He also was known for his fearlessness when it came to taking immediate action.

Addison tells the story of visiting the Cabinet War Rooms in the underground complex where Churchill ran the war effort. “His desk is still there,” Addison says. “On it there sits a box with a label that says, ‘Action This Day.’ Not an in box—a today box. Whether it was 5 in the afternoon or 2:30 in the morning, the prime minister was not leaving his desk until the last thing in that box got handled. I can’t say I’ve always succeeded, but in my career I’ve sought every day to follow that example.”

Whether a person has been running a business for a long time or is new at entrepreneurship, he is in the leadership business. Addison says, “By nature, leadership leads you to be overwhelmed. That’s just a fact of life.”

Being overwhelmed means a person might be working, but not necessarily working on the right things. It becomes very easy for a leader to become a victim of the calendar. Of course, sometimes there are things that can’t be avoided, but Addison says one big mistake he sees leaders often make is trying to handle everything with the same level of energy and focus. “You’re going from one problem to the next thing to the next thing to the next thing. You’ve got to step back and ask yourself, What is the main thing? What is the most important thing I’ve got to get done today?

Either at the start of each day or the end of the last one, Addison suggests listing each task that must get done that day and then being vigilant about moving through the tasks until every item is checked off. The tasks don’t need to be huge. “Just make sure you’re making progress. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch. You’ve just got to get a little farther, a little better. Realize you’re not going to solve all the world’s problems in one 24-hour period. But solve some of your problems in that 24-hour period.”

Related: 6 Qualities of a Leader in the Making

Know When to Shift Gears

Of course, all of the advice in the world on how to focus is useless when someone is driven by fear. If a leader takes actions based on fear of losing a client or making someone angry or delegating to people who can’t do the job as well as the leader thinks she can, then fear is in control—not the leader. Good leaders know when to shift gears and when to stay on task.

“A lot of people say, ‘If we don’t get this or that done, it’s a crisis!’ Here’s the reality,” Addison says. “As a result of not getting this or that done, how many people are going to die? Listen, trauma surgeons deal with crisis, OK? The 20-something-year-old kids in Afghanistan, they’re dealing with crisis. Dealing with a screwed-up accounts receivable system is not a crisis. It’s a situation.”

Most of us are not dealing with crises on a daily basis. Addison says understanding this distinction in priority levels and putting challenges into perspective is essential to knowing when to shift focus.

“Some things are big deals,” Addison says. “But they aren’t that big of a deal. We’re dealing with problems, challenges, those kinds of things.”

Once a leader puts the challenges into perspective, he can choose which task is the most pertinent based on that day’s goal list and the impact-versus-interest question, he says. First, does it fit in with his daily goals? If not, is it worth giving up some time that otherwise would be spent on the daily goals? In other words, can he make an impact or is he just interested?

This is where delegation comes in, Addison says. If the urgent situation can be handled by others—no matter how much a leader wants to micromanage or handle it herself—she needs to let them do their jobs. She needs to apply her focus where she can have the most impact. In most situations, her focus is best applied to her daily goals because they are the things that only she can accomplish.

Modeling Focus to Team Members

Any leader has strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps he’s a great innovator, an idea person who leads with visionary goal-setting. Or maybe he’s more of an in-the-trenches leader who excels at training his team in the daily workings of the company. No matter what his strengths, he must keep in mind that great leaders surround themselves with people who supplement their weaknesses. He needs people who can handle the things he’s not good at.

Modeling focus for team members, then, becomes essential. Over the last 20 years, the distractions in business have multiplied immensely. Addison says one of the best examples of modeling focus—or the lack of it—can be seen in any given meeting.

“I honestly believe if people would spend 75 percent less of their time staring at their phones, it would be amazing how much more effective everybody could be,” Addison says. “You’re supposed to be meeting on something, and all anybody is doing is tapping on their phones. And I guarantee you they’re not all responding to emails. They’re figuring out where they want to go for drinks after work or what they’re doing that weekend.”

If a leader wants her team to focus on the priorities at hand, she must do the same and model that behavior in all she does. Addison suggests asking everyone to leave their phones outside the door. Creating a “cell stack” at the center of the table is another option. Any leader probably gets twice as many emails as the people around the conference table, so by setting aside everything else to focus on the meeting priority, the leader’s work ethic models the kind of focus that will make a real impact.

Even when modeling focused behavior, he says the leader still needs to reinforce it to the team by communicating regularly.

“The further up you go, the more people want to come into your office and dump their garbage,” Addison says. “I’ve heard folks say that crap usually rolls downhill. In many ways, it rolls uphill if you allow it. You’ve got to get good at saying, ‘Look, that is not the No. 1 thing we’re going to deal with today. Right now, we have this issue in front of us that needs your attention.’ ”

Does this mean a leader can only work on one thing at a time? No, says Addison, who believes leaders have to be good multitaskers. But as they model focus for their teams, they have to communicate the foremost goals of the organization at any given time. If they allow team members to become engulfed in the latest “crisis” or sidetracked by their interests, leaders diminish their impact, as well as their organizations’ overall effectiveness.

Addison advises stepping back, taking a deep breath and setting priorities every day. “Then just give it your best shot. Get after it. Go get something done, and realize if things don’t work out the way you want them to, it’s not the end of the world.”

It’s just time to focus on the next thing.

Related: 7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at AmyKAnderson.com and on Facebook.