Psychologists define the term “cognitive control” as the scientific label for putting ones attention where one wants it and keeping it there in the face of temptation to wonder. Basically we are talking about focus. The psychologists believe that cognitive control enables individuals to pursue a goal despite distractions and setbacks. Naturally, this is an extremely important capability to be a successful leader. The same neural circuitry that allows such a single-minded pursuit of a goal also manages unruly emotions. Consequently, psychologists point out that good cognitive control can be seen in people who stay calm in a crisis, tame their own agitation, and quickly recover from a debacle or defeat.
There are tons of examples that demonstrate the importance of focus to leadership success. We saw this with Steve Jobs, who formed the small iPod team in 1999 and drove it to a successful launch in 2001. Then he did it again in 2007 with the iPhone, and again in 2010 with the launch of the iPad. Another example is Reed Hastings who drove the idea of offering movies via online ordering and mail delivery of movies on DVD’s, and then followed that up with the digital streaming of movies over the internet, knowing full well it would eventually obliterate the DVD-by-mail business.
There are also plenty of negative examples. How about Blackberry doing nothing during the 2003-2007 period except watch its existing product do well, ignoring the fact that its internet capabilities were weak and touchscreens had huge potentials for hand held devices. Then Apple and Samsung introduced their smartphones and it was all over for the hapless Blackberry folks. Blockbuster is another sad tale of the lack of focus to continually improve their product and stay in the lead. They fell in love with the idea of retail stores and Netflix obliterated them.
So what’s the takeaway of all of this for a leader? Here are some very straightforward lessons:
1.) Continually Be Driving Toward a Big Goal – At every juncture, you need to objectively face reality and set a stretching goal.
2.) Organize to Win – You need to re-organize around the key goal and get the right people in place to achieve it.
3.) Avoid Distractions – Minimize the time spent on minor issues, e-mails, and meetings. Time is your most precious asset and be sure to allocate plenty to the big goal.
4.) Set and Monitor an Aggressive Timetable – Never underestimate the ingenuity of people to achieve amazing things when an aggressive target is put in front of them.
Business is easy if we just avoid the temptation to waste time on minor issues and complicate things with lots of people and bureaucracy!