Sunday, February 28, 2010

For Good Or Ill: Singular Focus Is The Key to Dominance

Watching the Olympics reminded me of what it takes, not to be successful, not to be the best, not to be great, but to be dominant in any endeavor.

That dynamic? Singular focus.

Whether it is dominant Olympic athletes like Shawn White and Apollo Ohno, professional athletes like Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky, or the dominators of business and investing like Steven Jobs, Warren Buffett, and George Soros, a common factor among all of these is singular focus.

My experience in dealing with business leaders for more than 30 years leads me to believe that a lot of people have talent; a few are even creative, but only a handful have combined talent and creativity in the crucible with the rarest of ingredients -- singular focus.

This is why most companies try but fail in their relentless attempts to transfer the focus of their CEOs to their employees. Simply, singular focus is not a group activity. It is highly individual and few, if any, employees who work for a paycheck share the focus of their leader. If they did, they would be the leaders, the creators, the dominators.

The fact is, for good or ill, most people have varied interests in their lives and their focus changes based on circumstances, age, economics, family, and personal avocations. This is not bad. It is not good. It is just the way it is.

Indeed, some say the highly successful, those that have this thing called "singular focus," are actually more narrow and limited as human beings, if only because their interest is on their sport, vocation, or avocation to the exclusion of everything else. The "everything else" in their lives is sublimated to their focus. While oversimplified, we see it every day. Does anyone believe, for example, that Steven Jobs ever took his mind away from the creation of new Apple products even when he was fighting one of the deadliest of all diseases -- pancreatic cancer?

Such is the yin and yang of greatness -- the overwhelming desire and ability to focus on one goal over a lifetime, combined with copious amounts of talent and creativity. This is what leads to domination of sports and of markets, but it does not come without a price. By definition, singular focus eliminates other possibilities, and requires one to forego the richness of varied life experiences associated with a panoply of other interests. To borrow from the Olympics again, look at some of the great figure skaters. It is all they have known since they were toddlers. Many of them, like Andre Agassi in tennis, live long enough to resent the cost of the singular focus that made them dominant in their sport.

The practical implications of this observation, if true, are many. One that comes to mind immediately is the dynamic of "leadership." It is often boxed and sold on the assumption that the singular focus of one is transferable to another. While that concept continues to sell, it is not true. It has never been true. Indeed, most leadership gurus are just modern-day snake oil salesmen. What they are selling continues to sell not because it works but because people want it to work so badly they will suspend rational disbelief.

The best "leaders" can accomplish is to communicate their focus in a way that their employees understand and believe is in their own rational self-interest, admittedly different from the interests of their leaders. And that can be effective. But it is, and will always remain, qualitatively different than the fantasy of transferring one's singular focus to another.



Blogger John Gallagher said...

Jim, I love this post. Generally I would say that the singular focus is a good thing. To be GREAT at something, one must say NO to many GOOD things.

Also, I think that many leaders miss the opportunity to share their vision so that folks can follow them, and instead, try to force them to be well, for lack of a better word, 'THEM'.

8:30 PM  
Anonymous David Carroll said...

Really nice piece and I agree with your conclusions. I think I heard Bob Townsend say once that you can be the best at an endeavor, but don't expect to have much balance in your life. More balance in a leader gives more chance for a common ground upon which to communicate with the folks who really do the work. Too many times, the singularity of focus leads to very short term results but long term damage. Al Dunlap had a singular focus in several companies, but created nothing of lasting value.

In a slightly different vein, I have also been thinking about the Olympics and the people that achieve some measure of success versus those who dominate. I've always thought that there are those athletes who have a natural ability but don't work very hard. There are those who are not as naturally gifted but work harder than most everyone else. Both of those categories can and do achieve some measure of success. The ones who reach the pinnacle and remain there for some period of time are the ones with natural ability and work hard, such as a Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps. Hence, a Bode Miller is now achieving a level of success he didn't always enjoy before because he put both of the pieces together for Vancouver. A little more maturity and a family helped him to value the work ethic.

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my travels, two things stand out: 1)I've never wanted to have a cold beer with boss who knew to a certainty that he wanted the following two items: strict adherence to a work style and work product. 2) I've have had on occassion a number of beers with the idiot-in-charge who never understood that to know the weather, you look out the window. I wonder how Confucious would have penned that?

Greenville, Texas

6:33 PM  

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