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What should your leadership focus be?

I've recently been toying with the question of focus, specifically where those in leadership positions should focus. Most of us have heard the expression, "what you focus on is what matters to you." You may have a long list of things you want to do, but at the end of the day, what you've done is most likely the most honest expression of your goals.

I keep returning to how to frame this in a leadership role. Individuals in leadership positions frequently face the dual task of strategizing for the future while also managing in the present. Kotter expressed the distinction between leadership and management as leadership entails strategic, goal-setting tasks, whereas management focuses on plans and budgets.

I'm not sure if this distinction still holds true today. Instead, we now require individuals in leadership roles to be managers and leaders, by Kotter’s definition. As a result, these roles are increasingly attempting to manage the present while creating the future. It necessitates people dividing their time and focus.

So how do you decide? If you constantly have to juggle this tension between strategy and doing, how do you choose what to do?

The more I think about it, the more I think it's about focus. In his podcast, Adam Grant discusses changes in working patterns and the impact that CEOs and anyone in a leadership position can have on established norms and expectations. Adam believes that if a CEO or a leader works from the office on non-office days, it creates the expectation that people will be present. What matters here is the choice of what you do, not what you say your priorities are.

The key point here, in my opinion, is that it is about choosing what you do rather than what you say you care about. The challenge for most of us, as ordinary leaders, is to think about the tension between managing what needs to be done today and thinking about future challenges and strategies. This balancing act is frequently presented as a leadership trait that people either have or do not have. Some people are great managers, which implies that they are good at doing what is required now but not so good at thinking about long-term strategy. Others are great entrepreneurs - great at coming up with new ideas for the future but not so great at managing the day-to-day. I recently heard this from a very 'entrepreneurial' leader. "I'm good at creating ideas and seeing the future," they said, "but I'm not so good at processes and systems."

This focus challenge cuts both ways; the challenge is figuring out how to move between the two spaces based on where your team is. And doing so in such a way that you continue to exercise both the present and future muscles.

The graphic below provides a structured way of thinking about what mindset you should apply to a specific situation or problem.

Urgent/important: The concept of an urgent and important matrix will be familiar to most people. We frequently consider important questions to be in the future, while urgent ones are in the present. Instead, think of urgent/important as a choice between simple problems (urgent tasks that don't require much thought) and complex problems (those that require time to understand, often people challenges).

Complex problems usually have less obvious solutions. Are frequently more difficult to solve, face more internal opposition, and lack clear-cut solutions. While simple problems and urgent tasks usually have simple solutions, they are unlikely to face much internal resistance, don't require much change from people, and are frequently routine.

Present/Future focus: This is a question about whether the challenge you face is focused on solving a current problem or resolving a future question. In practical terms, is the timeframe for the problem you're considering 1-3 months, or is it something that will or could happen in 6, 12, or 24 months?

Future-focused problems frequently lack a clear or proven solution; they are more likely to necessitate new thinking, necessitating space and time to innovate. These issues cannot be solved with to-do lists and require time for people to consider multiple options. Present-focused problems necessitate more immediate action, typically focused on shorter-term issues and getting things done.

Action emphasis: Depending on where you end up in this 2x2, it suggests potential actions you could take as a leader. Blue sky thinking is the process of developing future ideas and plans. In general, tasks in this area could include new product development or developing a new approach to project implementation. The strategy execution boxes are focused on delivery, typically done by a small team. This could be a part of the overall strategy assigned to a specific team or a more pressing task assigned to an individual to lead on. Finally, delegate or do actions are urgent and present-focused actions that are unlikely to add value to you in your leadership position. Deal with these as soon as possible and move on.

While this isn't a perfect tool, it should get you thinking about the type of work you're doing as a leader and how you might shift your focus differently as you balance the competing challenges of managing the present and creating the future.


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If you found this blog engaging, have questions about ordinary leadership or want to chat about leadership in general, it would be great to connect.


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