You've probably seen the famous experiment that Harvard University psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted in 1999. They filmed two teams of students--one in white t-shirts; one in black t-shirts--weaving around and through each other. Each team was passing a basketball back and forth. Then the psychologists showed the film to a group of subjects, who were asked to count the number of passes by the white-shirted team. Simple, right?

Not so much. When they made the film, Chabris and Simons had a student in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the two teams, stop and beat her chest, and walk out the other side of the picture. After they showed the film to their subjects, the duo asked the subjects if they had noticed anything unusual. Almost half of the subjects never saw the gorilla.


The "Invisible Gorilla" experiment is often cited as another lesson in the many facets of cognitive failure. But neuroleadership expert and executive coach Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann, founder of Munich Leadership Group, argue that a sharp, strong focus is an essential trait and strength of leaders.

"The truth is that what is often perceived as distracted behavior by outsiders is actually an indication of the exact opposite! It's a sign of intensely focused behavior," they write in their new book, The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance (TarcherPerigee, Feburary 2017). "Your brain has allocated nearly all of its resources toward solving one specific problem and has deliberately and efficiently shut out any stimuli that are considered irrelevant to the task at hand."

The problem with which leaders must contend isn't too much focus, but too little. We live in an era of distraction, when the ability to multitask is often celebrated as a virtue. Instead, say the authors, "multitasking is the arch enemy of focus." To beat this enemy and sharpen your leadership focus, Fabritius and Hagemann recommend these seven tactics:

  1. Prepare for each new task. "Reduce internal distractions by clearing your head before embarking on difficult task," say the authors. Take a minute to refocus your attention on the new task.
  2. Find some fun and interest in what you're doing. Routine tasks, like regularly scheduled meetings, invite distraction. Change it up a bit to enhance focus--change the meeting location, for instance.
  3. Eliminate potential distractions at the outset. It's a lot easier to tune things out when they aren't within range. Stick unwanted stimuli--like photos or knickknacks--in a drawer.
  4. Establish concentration time. Carve out some time during the day to focus on important tasks. Make yourself unavailable to your staff; close the office door; turn off your phone.
  5. Work in manageable blocks of time. Instead of multitasking, spend a fixed period of time on one task. If the task requires a large block of time, give yourself a short break every 15 minutes or so.
  6. Use your brain wisely. "You may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time," say the authors, "but if you're performing a task that requires your concentration, the steps you're taking may be decreasing your productivity and increasing your chances of making mistakes." Walking meetings offer many benefits, but focus is not one of them. And pop out those ear buds--music is a distraction, too.
  7. Keep your e-mail habit under control. Business pros typically spend 23 percent of their time on e-mail. But if you schedule that time on fixed basis, you will have eliminated one of your biggest digital distractions.

If you want to be a better leader, hone your ability to devote more of your brain power to what's most important to your company.

Published on: May 11, 2017