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Attention, Leadership and Sustainable Business |

Attention, Leadership and Sustainable Business

October 22, 2011

I find that a way to explain something complex is to use a metaphor. In this video, I use a photo by Woody Woodworth of a sunbeam-lit wave in Mexico to describe the relationship between attention, leadership and sustainable business practices. View it now.

The reason for using a sunbeam on water to describe attention is because I experience a more evolved attention is one that is fluid and flexible, much like a sunbeam on water. Before I explain what I mean by this, let’s look at various definitions of “attention” by scholars and practitioners.

William James (2007), often referred to as the founding father of American psychology, defines “attention” as “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought” (pp. 404–3). Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008), considered one of the world’s leading researchers in positive psychology, defines “attention” as “a [complex mental] process that selects the relevant bits of information from the potential millions of bits available” (p. 31). He also refers to it as “psychic energy” because “attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated” (p. 33).

From a different view, B. Allan Wallace (2011), Buddhist practitioner and scholar, views attention as the “common denominator of all practices of shamathas [meditative quiescence] as well as the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion” (p. 137). Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs (2007), leadership researchers and practitioners, define “attention” as “the direct, nonconceptual awareness of physical, mental, and emotional experience in the present moment” (p. 221).

Relating attention to experience, Peter Nelson (1997), social scientist and leadership coach, considers “the deployment of attention (and attentional resources) as the sine qua non [essential ingredient] of experience” (p. 6). William James agrees when he writes that “experience is what I agree to attend to” (2007, p. 402).

When present in a challenging experience, there are “millions of bits” of things to pay attention to. This makes the already difficult experience more difficult. This pressure can cue me to pay attention in a limiting habitual way. I find that if my attention deploys habitually I may choose to focus on something that represents only a narrow perspective of what is really happening. As I focus on this narrow perspective, I’m not taking advantage of the wider range of possibilities that may represent better ways to navigate the challenging experience. In effect, my experience of the experience is limited.

For example, under pressure I can deploy my attention in such a way so as to avoid looking stupid. (This is one of my limiting attention habits.) As a result, my behavior could be that I say something inauthentic (because I think it will make me not look stupid) or I will get angry (getting angry is better than looking stupid, at least that’s what I’m thinking at that moment).

Instead, with a more fluid and flexible attention, an attention that is not trapped, I don’t react based on limiting habits. Under pressure, I quickly notice I’m paying attention in such a way to avoid looking stupid (this may feel like a knot in my stomach or thoughts in my head). For a moment I’m paying attention to my attention. I then can shift to being more present to the experience, opening up to a broader “physical, mental and emotional experience in the present moment.” I now have more room to navigate the situation.

Consider the above in the context of the metaphor: a sunbeam on water as an evolved form of attention. A sunbeam on water is flexible – it can bend and even break up but still retain its light. A sunbeam on water is fluid– the light appears to move in a fluid, flowing manner when water becomes its medium. When my attention is not trapped on something I usually pay attention to (like controlling a situation, sex, chocolate, not looking stupid, etc.), which can feel linear and rigid, I can deploy it in a more fluid and flexible way—flowing into the moment, bending it here and there to discover what is possible; the focus is free to move about, not caught based on habit.

Over time in this blog, this line of thinking will be expanded upon and applied to discovering the more innovative sustainable business solutions. Stay tuned…


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1st ed.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

James, W. (2007). The principles of psychology, Vol.1 (1st ed.). New York: Cosimo Classics.

Joiner, W. B., & Josephs, S. A. (2007). Leadership agility: Five levels of mastery for anticipating and initiating change (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nelson, P. L. (1997). Consciousness as reflexive shadow: An operational psychophenomenological model. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 17(3), 215-228.

Wallace, B. A. (2011). Minding closely: The four applications of mindfulness. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

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One Response to “Attention, Leadership and Sustainable Business”

  1. patrick t. rost on October 23rd, 2011 8:31 pm


    i love your metaphor; very cogent, practical approach to your brand / intention /blog…(apologies if this appears twice, i thought i had already commented.)

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