When I was learning how to drive, I remember the instructor telling me not to look at the cars parked on the side of the road because I would probably start drifting toward them. That seemed counter-intuitive to me; the reason why I was looking at them was precisely to avoid hitting them. As it turns out, our eyes tend to lead our bodies toward things, and so it is important to stay focused on where we want to go.
The same principle applies to leaders of organizations who get distracted from the core of their business by ancillary projects and pursuits, and find that their businesses start to drift. And no matter how many times they exhort their employees to stay focused on what matters most, they are going to find those exhortations will be ignored if their words don’t match their ‘eyes.’
Why is that? Because in a hierarchical setting, people will naturally seek to do what the person at the top finds most interesting. Even without explicit permission or encouragement, employees will be drawn to what the leader is paying attention to, or what he or she is talking about. Of course, this happens first among the leader’s direct reports who find themselves involved in conversations during meetings about whatever the CEO is fascinated with at the time. Inevitably, those distractions work their way deeper and deeper into an organization.
I’ve seen this happen at large companies and small ones. I’ve seen it happen in my firm when I found myself captivated by bright, shiny objects. Before I knew what was going on, people around me were thinking about and talking about those shiny objects, too, and losing their focus on what was most important.
The lesson in all this is pretty simple: leaders cannot underestimate the impact that their personal attention and interests have on the rest of the organization. So, as tempting as it is for them when they get bored to chase the next fun fad or interesting trend, leaders have to be extremely careful to keep those interests contained. And they have to find a way to constantly revive their passion for the core of their business.