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Leaders Pay Close Attention…and Then Act

May 3, 2020


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’s what we are in effect when it comes to behaviour, 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 had a yellow Labrador Retriever for 11 years. We got Max when he was just six weeks old from a farm east of Ottawa. Our four adult kids loved him, as did our grand kids. Max was gentle and patient with the little ones, but nevertheless exuberant when company arrived. He also slept a lot–or so one would like to think.

Watching a dog sleep is an interesting occasion. Just when you think Max was dead asleep on his comfy dog bed, one eye would pop 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 could hear that), but Max was now alert. And he had the uncanny ability to distinguish between a visitor entering the house, which prompted a few deep barks and a scurry up the stairs, and one of our kids, which prompted another quirky behaviour: grabbing one of his stuffed dinosaurs and bringing it upstairs as some sort of welcome gift. It’s a Lab thing, I guess.

MaxSue and I also enjoyed watching him chill out in the sun on the back deck. He looked at peace with himself, having a good snooze. But his ears twitched at every sound, his nose quivered at unknown scents, and he’d suddenly stand at alert to look out over the fence, only to plop himself down again and feign sleep.

I share this story to illustrate what Max did so well: he paid attention all the time, even when he was supposedly sleeping. He watched out the windows to constantly scan what was going on out on his street (yes, it was his street in his mind). He moved from person to person when family or friends visited, ensuring that everyone got some attention, not to mention a donation of some of his fur. And he’d lie at your feet when he detected you weren’t 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 was 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 former mayor Rahm Emanuel stated emphatically 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), got 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.

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 were not charged criminally is a mystery, though not necessarily surprising. GM’s recalls numbered over 28.5 million worldwide, or as TIME magazine stated, “All the Cars GM Has Recalled this Year Would Wrap the Earth 4 Times.”

Leaders pay attention.

They don’t cower and pretend that all is well. They suck it up and hit problems head on. General Motors’ top management was either unaware of its problems or ignored them. The CEO wasn’t paying attention. In the case of GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra, she worked diligently to rectify the problem, though it’s pretty hard to bring the people back to life who were killed by the company’s incompetence.

And in a Covid-19 pandemic, think of the national leaders who stepped up to the plate to tackle the problem head on. Examples include Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien, New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen.

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)

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