How Can Leaders Take A Critical Look At Themselves? – Part 3

How Can Leaders Take A Critical Look At Themselves? – Part 3

Written By: Cahide Akkuzu

Reading time: approximately 6 minutes

This is the last part of the series of articles about the willingness and capacity of leaders to critically question themselves.

Part 1 of this series is about the importance that leaders critically question themselves in order to stay relevant and be effective while facing the challenges of the modern world that we are living in. In Part 1 we looked at the adult development theory and the levels of mental complexity in adults allowing them to question themselves. The more an adult is advancing in their level of mental complexity, the more an adult is able to question their own ‘I’. You can read Part 1 from this link: LİNK

Part 2 of this series is about how adults can make the transition to higher levels of mental complexity. Knowing that, as human beings, we all have an internal resistance to change, we looked into how the neuroscience of change can help leaders to successfully achieve their goals to change. You can read Part 2 from this link: LİNK

In this last article of this series, we will focus on a very important question leaders need to ask themselves: ‘What am I focusing on?’. Leaders and organizations go through many challenges and uncertainties. We face many situations that trigger our ‘amygdala’ and we are easily distracted.  The ability of a leader to constantly question and review where their focus is and where their focus actually should be is making a big difference!

We are expecting leaders to create value by increasing the competitiveness of an organization in a sustainable way. But this is not that easy! While trying to do this, we know that leaders face many challenges, both internally and externally. External challenges might be conditions that the leader cannot control like an economical fluctuation or like a Covid-19 outbreak. Examples for internal challenges of the organization might be low employee engagement or ineffective processes. When faced with a challenge, leaders have the choice of two options: focusing on negativity or focusing on positivity! Research shows that focusing on positivity and on thriving the business is the most effective method for a person or organization to overcome challenges. Just like George Lucas, a famous entrepreneur and producer of Star Wars movies, said: “Always remember, your focus determines your reality!”

Positive psychology classifies leaders either as pessimists or as optimists. Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a pioneer in the field of positive psychology. He describes these two types of leaders in his famous book “Learned Optimism”. According to Seligman, whether you are a pessimist or an optimist depends on how you explain bad events to yourself. Pessimists often personalize bad life events, attributing them to permanent, pervasive causes. Their projection of present despair into the future causes learned hopelessness: the belief that in the face of bad or uncontrollable events, their individual action does not matter. Their focus is on the negatives. By contrast, optimists externalize adversity’s causes and see them as fleeting and specific. Optimists don’t take adversities personal. They credit good events to personal, permanent, pervasive causes. Optimists are much quicker than pessimists to get over a setback and try again. Martin Seligman says:

‘’Optimism begets resilience; optimists succeed. By studying people who do not give up easily or who bounce back more quickly, researchers are realizing that resilience comes down to the explanations people give themselves when things go bad.’’

Other research results also show that learned helplessness leads to depression and stress, it even causes serious illnesses by affecting the immune system negatively. The pessimistic belief that “nothing I do matters” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s look at the topic of ‘focus’ from an organizational development perspective. The “Appreciative Inquiry” model, developed by Case Western University professor David Cooperrider in 1980s, is used widely in the corporate world and various industries in more than 100 countries all around the world. Appreciative Inquiry method brings a new approach to change management of organizations. It is an approach to organizational change which focuses on strengths rather than on weaknesses. The 4 step process helps a person and the organization to look at strengths, successes, best potentials, and opportunities. It lets people focus on positives and potentials from a holistic perspective. The Appreciative Inquiry model helps an organization to build it’s change initiative on a very solid ground: the core strength and the potential of the people and the organization. I use this model in my organizational development programs and have evidence that this model works.

Now, let’s look at the topic of ‘focus’ from the leader’s personal development perspective. Dr. Jack Zenger and Dr. Joseph Folkman are leadership development consultants that have studied for many years what makes leaders extraordinary and they have identified 16 competencies that differentiate good leaders from extraordinary leaders. Out of this comprehensive research they have developed a solid model that helps leaders to become extraordinary. So, first of all let’ s take a look into their research results of what makes leaders extraordinary. One of the striking results was that if a leader is to some degree strong in all of the 16 leadership competencies, that leader tends to be just ‘good’ or even below average in terms of effectiveness. But if a leader focuses on one of these strong differentiating leadership competencies, and develops it into a profound strength, their efficiency as a leader doubles up. These leaders make one aspect of themselves really shine out so that it is strongly recognized by their various stakeholders. Those leaders who focus on one strength every year and develop it into a profound strength that shines out and eventually reach the level of having 4 – 5 profound strengths over time, are leaders that are at the top 10% percentile in the leadership effectiveness scale. The key to effective leadership is to ‘focus’ on developing one strength at a time into a profound strength. Making the right choice of which strength to develop does play a key role as well. Zenger Folkman also offer a methodology to leaders on how to develop a strength into a profound strength, as this requires a different methodology than fixing a fatal flaw or working on a weakness.

Daniel Goleman, behavioral scientist and author of the international bestseller ‘Emotional Intelligence”, emphasizes the importance of ‘focus’ for leaders with the following quote:

“Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership. Focus is not just selecting the right thing, but also saying no to the wrong ones.”

In his book ‘Focus’, Daniel Goleman explains why focus is essential for navigating life, performing at your best, leading others and, ultimately, improving the world for future generations. He points out three different categories of focus – “inner, other and outer”. For leaders to be effective and get results they need all three kinds of focus.

‘Inner’ focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Leaders need to be aware of their own inner world, use their intuition, have high awareness of their unconscious biases and know what triggers or misleads them. A leader who can use their inner focus effectively will be a role model to others, and will inspire and motivate others by communicating effectively. This will help the leader to direct the organization’s attention and focus into the right place. A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless.

‘Other’ focus smoothes our connections to the people in our lives. This is about how a leader interacts with others and what kind of communication the leader chooses to use. A leader who uses their outer focus effectively can listen to others, can build a healthy network of relationships with others, is very good at communicating with people, has high emotional intelligence, has empathy to others, can read group dynamics very well and understand others’ needs. A leader blind to the world of others will be clueless.

‘Outer’ focus lets us navigate in the larger world. Leaders with a strong outer focus effectively see the bigger picture by looking at things from a wider perspective and thereby are able to read the context very well. This type of leader can foresee the impact of decisions on the wider system, has a strategical approach, is revolutionary and has excellent executive abilities. A leader who is indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.

‘Focus’ is a function of our prefrontal cortex. In Part 2 of this article I described the prefrontal cortex acting like a conscious command center that performs higher intellectual functions. We must consciously train our prefrontal cortex so that it ‘focuses’ on what it should focus on. Interestingly, Daniel Goleman points to video games as a means to train ourselves for focusing better:

“Video games focus attention and get us to repeat moves over and over, and so are powerful tutorials.”

In Part 2 of this article, I wrote about ‘Neuroplasticity’, the feature of our brain to transform itself into any shape it desires, to change and adapt itself. One of the leading experts in the field of neuroplasticity, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, reveals striking scientific facts about the effects of focusing on our brain.

‘’Being a quantum environment, the brain is subject to all the laws of quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, the question you ask of nature influences the outcome you see. This is quite true of the brain. The questions you ask of your brain significantly affect the quality of the connections it makes, and profoundly alters the patterns and timings of the connections the brain generates in each fraction of a second. Now, substitute the concept of ‘attention’ for the phrase “the question you ask,” and you get the statement “Where you focus your attention, you make connections.” Focus your attention on something new, and you make new connections. This has shown to be true through studies of neuro-plasticity, where focused attention plays a critical role in creating physical changes in the brain.’’

An examples that supports Jeffery M. Schwartz’s theory are placebo drugs that are in reality just sugar. People believe that these drugs will heal them and focus their energy on this healing process. After a while they actually heal, they create their own reality!

Another example is a study done by Baylor College of Medicine and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Bruce Moseley conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to evaluate the efficacy of arthroscopy for osteoarthritis of the knee. A total of 180 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were randomly assigned to receive either an arthroscopic surgery or a placebo surgery. Patients in the placebo group had a ‘fake’ surgery, they received skin incisions without insertion of the arthroscope. Patients and assessors of the outcome were blinded to the treatment-group assignment. Outcomes were assessed at multiple points over a 24-month period with the use of self-reported scores on scales for pain, scales for function, and an objective test of walking and stair climbing. A total of 165 patients completed the trial. At no point did either of the intervention groups report less pain or better function than the placebo group.

For two years, they did not tell the placebo group that their surgeries were fake. One of the members of this group, Tim Merez, started playing basketball with his grandchildren. Before the ‘fake’ surgery he could only walk with a stick. Tim Merez summarized his experience to Discovery Health channel with the following words:

“If you use your mind, nothing remains impossible in this world. I know that our mind can create miracles.”

 We can find many examples of healing with focusing on positive thoughts as a result of the placebo effects. On the opposite side, when a person focuses on negative thoughts, a person can harm herself or himself. This situation is called the “nosebo” effect. Unfortunately, the ‘nosebo’ effect is as strong as the placebo effect!

It becomes clear that the willingness and capacity of leaders to critically question themselves depends highly on their ability to focus on what they need to focus on. Leaders always need to ask themselves these three questions in this order, and answer them honestly:

What am I focusing on?

What kind of a reality am I creating for myself and others by focusing on that?

What should I focus on to create the reality that I desire?

I believe that leaders who focus on these three questions and answer them with honesty will always challenge themselves, will critically look at themselves, will develop their awareness, will have an innovative attitude and will be able to focus themselves and their organizations on the most important goals that they want to achieve. In today’s tough and challenging work environment, we need leaders that focus on solutions rather than problems, focus on positives rather than negatives, encourage and recognize achievements rather than criticize weak spots, encourage creativity and innovation rather than kill bright ideas, lead with clarity rather than confuse others, unify rather than divide, and last but not least, make us feel valued and important. The responsibility to critically look at themselves is not only the responsibility of the people that are in leadership positions. We cannot step aside and wait for them to fix everything and rescue us. We all are leaders, responsible for the world that we are creating at every moment. We all have the responsibility to question ourselves and to focus, in order to create the reality that we desire for ourselves and for others!

Goodbye, and see you next month with a brand new topic!


Zenger Folkman

Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (2013)

Context Professionals Corporate Coaching and Consulting


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