I draw upon my experiences from four worlds that I continually move between. As a college professor, I am privileged to study and teach leadership issues as part of my responsibilities in the Department of Psychology at Palo Alto University. As a husband and father, I work to provide personal example and leadership for my family. My wife and kids give me ample feedback on my effectiveness. As a Colonel in the Army National Guard, I am able to test my academic leadership against real life scenarios. As a glider pilot, I am always pushed to think clearly and precisely about my actions in order to surf the cumulus clouds of the Sierras before bringing my ship and soul back to earth safely. With engineless flight there are no second chances.
Each of the worlds I participate in has taught me something about focus. My doctoral advisor gave me sage advice in writing my dissertation. He told me to write my chosen topic on a piece of paper and paste it on the wall in front of my desk. He told me to look at it every half hour as I write to ensure I was working on the right task. It worked.
Aircraft pilots are taught to focus their efforts with three simple words, "aviate, navigate and communicate". Even pilots need reminding at times to fly the plane, keep it going in the right direction and tell the tower and other aircraft where you are going. So far so good.
In my earlier infantry years, I was told to "move, shoot and communicate". My former platoon leader instructed me to maneuver towards the enemy, put fire on the target and make sure your higher headquarters knows what you are up to.
In my personal religious devotions, I am reminded that maintaining healthy personal relationships is more important than personal. The golden rule of treating others as you wish you were treated is a simple principle many live by.
"Stay focused" is easy to say but hard to do. Threats to our focus are many. Our generation is the most distracted in history. We receive letters, emails, faxes, pages, phone and cell phone calls. Rather than developing paperless offices, we produce letters and reports faster than ever. We live such a fast paced life it is easy to keep busy while never accomplishing the important missions of life.
In reading student papers, it is easy to spot "mission drift". Students will often state what they want to write about in their topic sentence in the first paragraph and often by the end of the paper they seem to have forgotten what their topic sentence was all about and are writing about something totally different.
A glider pilot told me a story about a situation in which he got distracted. He got "rattled" in the landing pattern and missed a critical part of his checklist. While flying the downwind, base and final legs of his landing approach he began hearing a strangely familiar sound. Upon landing his glider made a long white streak on the runway from the fiberglass scraping off the bottom hull of the fuselage. He had forgotten to lower his landing gear and the sound he had been hearing was the "gear up" warning bell.
In a logistical exercise I worked on after only 24 hour hours of continued operations myself and the other staff found themselves working frantically, becoming distracted by secondary issues and at times beginning to drift from the intended focus of the operation. The Higher H Q Commander wisely took pause to re-read the published mission statement and ensure his staff and subordinate commander were again properly focused.
Years ago as a father I realized that I only had eighteen years with each of my kids and that I better stay focused on that responsibility. I had to remind myself to not just do things "for my kids" but also make sure that I was doing things "with my kids". Eighteen years goes by fast.
Everyone, especially leaders require focus to ensure that the distractions spawned by the tyranny of the urgent do not obscure the long term important. Here are a couple of suggestions:
1. Write down your mission, goals and objectives.
2. Check constantly to see you are going in the right direction.
3. Communicate to your team to ensure that they understand where you and they are headed.
The above advice works for glider pilots, parents, military commanders, students, educators and corporate leaders. Everyone tends to drift but a simple checklist can prevent getting too far off track.
William H. Snow, Ph.D