Blog Article

The three kinds of focus every leader needs

Posted by Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman

Consider a hard-driving executive, one who focuses on his quarterly targets and goes through whatever personal heroics are needed to hit his numbers. A valuable asset to any company, right?

Well, it depends. Such executives, increasingly common in the working world, may be too focused on the numbers at the expense of empathy. Empathy – understanding how others think and feel and what your impact is on them – counts among three kinds of focus high-performing managers need today.

The other two are self-awareness and systems awareness. I refer to this triad as Inner, Other, and Outer focus. Executives need strengths in all three, and to use the right one at the right time. When these streams of attention weave together, they become a hidden driver of excellence.

Three focus areas for high-performing managers

  1. Self-awareness, the fundamental form of Inner focus, was identified as a “meta” ability and essential for running a company, in a survey of 100 CEOs. Among the competencies for star performance based on this inner awareness: emotional self-control in the form of recovering from stress quickly and managing distressing feelings; adaptability as circumstances change, and keeping an undistracted focus on goals.
  2. Empathy, the core of Other focus, does more than help us read other people accurately. This focus provides the foundation for interpersonal leadership competencies like influence and persuasion, inspiring others and motivating them, teamwork and collaboration.
    The Inner and Other focuses underlie a leader’s emotional intelligence. I co-designed the ESCI-360 with Richard Boyatzis and Hay Group to help executives develop further strengths in these competencies.
  3. Systems awareness, the Outer focus, which helps an executive read
    the larger forces that impact the organization: competitive threats, opportunities
    as a businesses’ ecosystem shifts, the economy it operates in and the like. A
    keen focus here allows the formulation of smart strategies.

High performance takes all three
Leadership Run Amok” was the title of a Harvard Business Review article by Hay Group consultants Scott Spreier, Mary Fontaine and Ruth Malloy. They drew on data from scores of companies showing that pace-setting leaders don’t listen, don’t make decisions by consensus or spend time getting to know the people they work with.

It’s a leadership style that lacks Other focus. And it’s become all too common today, the article says. The style succeeds in terms of reaching business goals, but fails because of the human cost. Ambitious revenue goals alone do not take the full measure of an organization’s health. Downsides can include a drop in morale and motivation and the loss of star employees.

A CEO confided in me that he had gotten some sobering performance feedback. No one faulted him on his business expertise, but he was sorely lacking when it came to empathy and inspiring leadership.

On reflection he realized that he was driven by a deep fear of failure, and that’s when someone’s performance let him down, that fear took over. Then he would become brutally critical. As Scott Spreier told me, “if you don’t have self-awareness when you get hooked by the drive to achieve a goal, that’s when you lose empathy and go on auto-pilot.”

Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., was a student of Professor David McClelland, and applied McClelland’s concepts of competencies in formulating how emotional intelligence matters for outstanding leadership. He partnered with the Hay Group to develop the Emotional and social competency inventory (ESCI).

His new book is Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

See Daniel Goleman discuss his new book here >>


Leave a comment

Comment with Facebook


  1. Mary


    October 15, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    I agree partially, the main goal for the company is performance, then systems awareness, getting those around him to perform at optimum. In most businesses as in life the third is also a major factor but must be played down with some individuals do to their personalities. Helping your employees do their best, doesn’t mean you have to be a sympathetic person all the time. It means that you recognize the situation, acknowledge the problem or issue and get on with being professional and getting the work done. Hurdles and challenges make us better people.

  2. Koorosh Khalilinejad

    October 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Daniel. I admire the simplicity in how you outlined the 3 major traits of the start leaders. The Self-Awareness is the key and the need for succeeding in the other two. The Empathy or Other factor is increasingly becoming an important factor given increase of X and Y generation in our workforce. And the System-Awareness is equally important to be able to achieve the goals as every incorporation has its own context. The other aspect worth mentioning (that can be included in the System-Awareness) is the Outer aspect of the business in reference to the overall market and the business context. Rivals, changes and the forces in the marketplace are areas that a leader can benefit from being aware to identify the changes of the trend and be proactive in steering the team/organization.

  3. Jenny

    November 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Excellent article, thanks! Have had the chance to see Goleman yesterday in Lausanne, CH and that’s exactly what he told us!
    Jenny (

Related posts  

Subscribe to our mailing list

To access our latest thinking and get regular updates fill in your email address below

Latest video blog

More from Hay Group