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Leaders Pay Close Attention…and Then Act

July 7, 2014
Max  - Erica Aug 2012 Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than ATTENTION. Animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey.
– Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man, 1871)

We humans consider ourselves to be the superior beings on Mother Earth. Indeed, we don’t like to think of ourselves as animals, though that is what we are in effect when it comes to behavior, given our propensity for violence, whether against other humans, wildlife or the environment. Perhaps, however, it’s an insult to other “animals” to say that humans are part of their animal clan.

Sue and I have an eight-year old Labrador Retriever, Max. We’ve had him since he was six weeks old. Our four adult kids love him, as do our four grand kids. Max is gentle and patient with the little ones, but nevertheless exuberant when company arrives. He also sleeps a lot–or so one would like to think.

Watching a dog sleep is an interesting occasion. Just when you think Max is dead asleep on his comfy dog bed in the rec room, one eye pops open, and then the other. It may have been the innocuous sound of a door opening or the sound of cheese being grated upstairs in the kitchen (yes, he can hear that), but Max is now alert. And he as the uncanny ability to distinguish between a visitor entering the house, which prompts a few deep barks and a scurry up the stairs, and one of our kids, which elicits another quirky behavior: grabbing one of his stuffed dinosaurs and bringing it upstairs as some sort of welcome gift.

I also enjoy watching him chill out in the sun on the back deck. He looks at peace with himself, having a good snooze. But the ears are twitching at every sound, his nose quivering at unknown scents and he’ll suddenly stand to alert to look out over the fence, only to plop himself down again and feign sleep.

Max-Charley-FergI share this story to illustrate what Max and dogs in general do so well: he pays attention all the time, even when he’s supposedly sleeping. He watches out the windows to constantly scan what’s going on out on his street (yes, it’s his street in his mind). He goes from person to person when family or friends visit, ensuring that everyone gets some attention, not to mention a donation of some of his fur. And he will lie at your feet when he detects you’re not feeling well.

For a dog with the IQ of a toddler, Max and his canine peers do a pretty job at trying to subtly teach we humans how to be present in the moment and to be aware of our surroundings. Except that we’re not doing a very good job at it.

Let’s consider top corporate leadership, where one would assume that CEOs and presidents are paying attention to what’s happening within their organization’s walls.

Whether it’s General Motors’ ongoing negative media exposure caused by years (indeed decades) of gross senior leadership incompetence of ignoring faulty ignition switches in the Chevrolet Cobalt or leaking fuel lines in the Chev TrailBlazer, or inner city drug problems and associated violence spurred on by indifferent mayors, paying attention is the role of true leaders.

As Chicago’s feisty but effective and committed mayor Rahm Emanuel stated emphatically in Bloomberg BusinessWeek on the issue of OxyContin abuse: “The heads of the pharmaceutical companies and the head of the FDA and the heads of the medical profession need to step up and start taking responsibility. You have a regulated drug that is leading to overdose and heroin addiction. Snap out of it and pay attention.”

Love him or hate him Emanuel, as President Obama’s pit bull former Chief of Staff (who drove the Affordability Healthcare Bill to conclusion), gets things done. And he’s absolutely correct when he says, in effect, that corporate leaders must pay attention to the damage they’re inflicting on society.

Mary The same applies on a much grander scale to General Motors top management which, through its arrogance and high-handed manner, caused the needless death and injuries to numerous people. That some senior executives have not been charged criminally is a mystery to your correspondent. And as of writing this post, GM’s recalls number 28.5 million worldwide, or as TIME magazine stated, “All the Cars GM Has Recalled this Year Would Wrap the Earth 4 Times.” (Photo of new GM CEO Mary Barra testifying before Senate Sub-Committee on Consumer Protection).

Or how about T-Mobile’s recent run-in with the Federal Trade Commission which is suing the company for ripping off customers for hundreds of millions of dollars in third party charges on phone bills for supposed premium services. Known as “cramming,” where a company puts misleading, unauthorized or deceptive charges through customers’ phone bills, the FTC filed its accusations in Seattle in early July. The charges, buried in customers’ detailed phone bills, were unauthorized, and in fact some customers had asked T-Mobile to stop when they discovered them.

Leaders pay attention.

They don’t cower and pretend that all is well. They suck it up, in the vernacular of my son who works in banking, and hit problems head on. General Motors’ and T-Mobile’s top management either were unaware of their respective problems or ignored them. They weren’t paying attention. In the case of GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra, she’s trying to rectify the problem, though it’s pretty hard to bring the people back to life who were killed by the company’s incompetence.

So, with that all said, what type of leader are you?

Do you pay close attention to what is going on around you?

Do you act promptly when something is not right?

And do your eyes pop open, like Max’s, when you detect a subtle change?

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence.

– Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976)

Photos of dogs by Erica McTaggart

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