‘Clarity begins with realizing what we do not notice—and don’t notice that we don’t notice’.
Sir Alex Ferguson the legendary former coach of football club Manchester United was quite clear in his leadership philosophy and approach to coaching that the ability to notice what was going on, to closely observe and to see things was essential. That was not an innate or instinctive approach for him, in his earlier career he was very hands on, too in the detail to really notice. But when one of his assistant coaches challenged him to let go and step back a bit and let others run the detail, he quickly found the value.
Leadership is all about making decisions or setting the context in which others can make decisions. In turn good decisions need good data. That information is going to come from many sources but I think leaders often pay too little attention to their own ability to observe and notice. Like any skill it needs practice – not least to keep asking yourself the question, what am I noticing? An undervalued but powerful question for any leader.
Alex Ferguson noted that, ‘The ability to see things is key – or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see’. But it wasn’t until he stepped back, that he was able to create the space and distance to really notice.
You could think of this as the ability to get up to a position on the balcony – slightly elevated and detached you can create the perspective and stillness of mind that close observation demands. To find what T S Eliot called, ‘the still point of the turning world.’ This ability to mentally detach and pay attention to your point of focus I think particularly marks out leaders who perform best in high pressured environments.
My colleague and performance psychologist Charlie Unwin relates a story of how Stuart Hooper as Captain of Bath Rugby would often in a game connect with George Ford and ask him what he was noticing? The question itself was a powerful prompt for George to pay attention to what he was noticing and an invaluable help to Hooper who readily admitted it was hard to notice much from the bottom of a scrum. Perhaps not coincidentally when Hooper was injured and not playing and therefore not asking that question, Ford’s form suffered – perhaps because unprompted, he stopped noticing quite so much.
This may all seem a bit counter-intuitive to our view of the leader in the midst of the action driving things forward though example, energy and good communication and of course there is a place for this. But in that position, we often don’t notice. Sometimes people will come and tell you things, sometimes people will give you an honest answer when you ask but often neither of those things happens. I’ve spent most of my professional career working with people who were exceptionally mentally tough, resilient and very self-reliant. But there is a shadow side to that self-reliance in that people with this kind of make-up, high performers in any domain, often find it extremely difficult to ask for help. I’ve certainly become aware in myself of that being a real blind spot. In that context the power of a leader to notice is even more important.
In the Military and nearly every point in the chain of command there is a partnership between an Officer and an NCO. This double act has innumerable benefits but surely one of them is that it increases the opportunity to pay attention to what you are noticing. In 2015 borrowing from a well-established tradition in the US military the British Army introduced command Sgt Majors extending the officer NCO relationship right to the top of the Organisation and making sure that Generals still had the advice of a trusted partner to hand. Generals like all senior leaders often struggle the most to really notice, since they get managed and have a tendency to think the world smells of fresh paint whilst watching more BS power point presentations from bum-snorklers keen to impress. It’s hard to be allowed to detach and just watch.
As 1-small thing that you could do to improve your leadership this coming month that small question is not a bad place to start – what am I noticing?
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