Soaring to a wider attention span again – freeing up strongly focussed leaders by Laurent Terseur


I often work with strongly focused leaders, who operate in intense, highly competitive contexts and within very powerful organisational cultures. They are strong achievers, hold high standards and are usually incredibly skilled when it comes to observing, analysing, processing and coming up with powerful ideas.

I observe that as a recurring pattern, the circumstances of their lives have lead them to be incredibly driven, to a point it might require them to wake-up and break free from an excessive focus. 

The pattern – and how it shows up

These “natural born thinkers” gradually lose some of their thinking capacity when they increasingly let their focus be taken over by a reduced number of attention points. Typically, as they keep driving ever faster, the beam of their headlights intensifies, get sharper and it also tends to get narrower. It may shed an ever-increasingly intense and far-reaching light, yet mostly if not only in the same and repeated very specific direction: they grow the exciting habit of thinking faster and deeper – but always in the same way.

It can even turn into a form of obsession - when a same idea that keeps being ruminated or that same area keeps being front and centre. They put in considerable efforts - as if they were applying more and more force to open the lid stuck to the jam jar, or struggling with a painfully resisting DIY task, - with the growing frustration of little/no change as one would expect in both cases. This is what I call 'lock-in'. Lighter versions of lock-in exists. And it's the recurring use of the same formulations or reasonings that lead to the same outcomes are one of the many subtle tells. High levels of tiredness and stress will also act as powerful compounding factors.

With the fundamental belief that there is something resisting us it is often telling us that there is probably a more efficient and less damaging alternative way to be considered. I became increasingly interested in using that pattern as an important potential for my clients to tap into during our coaching conversations, for them to start thinking differently.

The coaching opportunity with this pattern

My ongoing observation with these very driven leaders is that a vast proportion of the decisive shifts in their coaching journeys happen when we manage to create a disruption that help them break free from that intensity of focus; they can get off the throttle, soar and widen their attention span again.

Among other examples, I think of:

  • this entrepreneur exploring a past success to find resources that they could apply to a present situation. They were remembering all what they did to make that success happen. The big insight came to them when being asked what they had not done that had allowed that success to happen.
  • this leader feeling impaired as they were losing hope to find the way to open their “jam jar”, and went back to operating at their best when asked how they would do without this specific jam and found out they didn't need bother opening that specific jar either any more.
  • this high performer who was reaching a glass ceiling and was told but not convinced of the benefits of using a more listening leadership style, who had a deeply moving insight when asked about the costs instead.
  • this front-office team struggling to make more impact with “C-suite” clients, who powerfully changed the nature of their conversations by shifting the focus on learning from the client instead of focusing with anxiety on their own performance, when asked about the impact they were trying to make on themselves.
  • the many leaders I worked with, who leap-frogged nearer the change they desired when they were asked about what they wanted to let go of, as opposed to what they could do more of.

Some of these interventions could qualify as a form of  “reframing [1]” yet I feel that in most of the cases there are more ways to make these highly driven and focused leaders suddenly feel relieved and experience a burst of creative energy revealing completely different places for them to explore by focusing on:

  • opposites (missing/desired, excess/lack, more/less, soft/hard, dark/clear, fast/slow, etc.)
  • alternatives (the scenic route instead of straight “A” to “B”, etc.)
  • missing or gone parts of the picture
  • different perspectives or dynamics (inside-out to outside-in, etc)
  • the one odd out, etc.

In neurosciences terms, such shifts help to create or access completely different neuronal connections. The intention here is to switch on the light on brand new neuronal fields that are just to the side or in front of the ones that have been so far privileged and hardwired by repeatedly activating them[2]

This gets those very driven leaders out of the focus, and sometimes even the obsession, they might have gradually been locking themselves in too. As they restore for themselves a broader vision and pay attention in a way they don't usually in their life they create new connections that are uniquely powerful to them.

What strikes me is how much they actually make such a great use of the new perspectives and come up with powerful, immediately defining, important insights – for they are great thinkers !

How to help them get into the mindset of waking up to themselves? 

I find 'the art' to be about coming to a point when they are ready to embrace disruption.

Considering how these strong leaders have been painstakingly working at building their own robust “chains” they have so far very well resisted breaking loose from them. Also considering that they display very high levels of assertiveness, energy and drive, and have hardwired a tight and “efficient” approach of their time management, getting them to slow down and profoundly open up is not a straight-forward thing.

All the pressure they have been receiving from their role, their organisation and its culture, the challenges of their wider context, and of course also the pressure they've been creating for themselves - they can all stand in their way and contribute to hold them back from breathing, soaring or opening up. I observe this is, by the way, one of the main reasons for them to seek external support.

Having reflected on how our conversations manage to create the conditions for making possible these shocks that allow them to break loose, I came up with the following observations.

I notice that a lot of the work I'm doing with them in our conversation is around creating from the outset (and then maintaining) a “quietly powerful” atmosphere for our conversations.

In specific terms, I find this is about establishing a genuinely warm and direct connection from the start, and then further consolidating the levels of trust, by quickly creating a space and starting to shield it from the pressures from the outside, so they can first lay down arms and take a breathe.

It's also about finding the right blend of warmth and directness, so they feel encouraged to start listening to themselves again (most often after years, if not more, of not listening to themselves) and to confront their own avoidance strategies, so that what truly matters to them can surface.

At that point and from there on, we have a compass helping to hold the attention. As the process unfolds, I find myself posing an ongoing series of instant diagnosis that in real time helps in offering interventions to take the conversation forward (in respect of the subtle above-mentioned equilibriums), and start exploring opportunities for constructive disruptions aiming at lighting up those new neuronal fields.

And then “we tango”, in a constant trial and explore process to allow the shock of setting them free of their own intensity. Just as it takes a sophisticated and acutely sensitive combination of oil additions and relevant moves applications to gently loosen a rusted bolt and unlock it without breaking it... that bolt is free again!

These are the steps I have crystallised in my mind so far...

  1. (Create and) maintain the connected, trusted, warm and direct atmosphere.
  2. Maintain the right blend of support and challenge.
  3. Constantly hold the attention to what truly matters to them.
  4. When a form of lock-in or “forcing focus” is surfacing,
  5. Get the conversation to pause and offer disruption. 
  6. Leave them to soar and think!
  7. Get them to dwell on the resulting insights.
  8. Continue the journey.

...and I enjoy the idea of looking at it as work in progress as I keep learning every day in that space. 

To connect with Laurent Terseur

[1] Definition of REFRAMING (Psychology Dictionary, Developing a new conceptual or emotional outlook relating to situations experienced, and putting it into another frame which follows the facts or evidence equally well, changing its whole definition. Reconstruction of a subject's experiential view to impart a more positive view of it. Method for changing self-defeating thought processes by consciously inserting more positive ones.
[2] Amongst other reads : “MINDSIGHT”, Pr. Daniel Siegel, Oneworld editions, 2011