Attention is the Currency of Leadership

Great leaders optimize how they spend their attention. They are skilled at turning up the heat to get others to focus their attention on the right things at the right times. Attention is the currency of leadership and each person has a fixed amount of attention to spend.

“Leaders have a fixed amount of attention units they can spend in a day, week, or year. Are you spending yours on the right things?” (A mentor of mine, Chris Phillips)

The number of “attention units” (AUs) a person can spend over a period of time is fixed. Let’s use a week as our time period. You have 1000 AUs you can spend in 7 days. Each leader’s amount might be different, but is fixed for each. Attention Units cannot be carried forward. You can’t earn more. The same balance applies to the leader’s personal and work life. Spend yours wisely.

I spent last week at an amazing leadership training offsite. One theme of this training was how to ensure others’ attention is focused on the right things. I’ve had some success becoming a better leader by using the concept of Attention Units to focus my own attention, and to train others to do the same. For example, the idea that “90% of the decisions you make don’t matter” is a powerful mental model you can use to focus your attention on the right problems.

“Attention is the currency of leadership” – Ronald Heifetz

As I’ve contemplated what I learned this week I’ve tried to mesh my former mental model of Attention Units with the far stronger concept that attention is THE currency of leadership, which was introduced to me this week. I sat down this morning to write this post (writing is a great way to create clarity of thought) and an article about Reid Hoffman serendipitously came across my twitter stream. In it, Ben Casnocha wrote:

“Every decision has tradeoffs: when you choose to do one thing it means you choose not do some other thing.” – Ben Casnocha

This is so true! I found this definition of Attention on Wikipedia, which resonated:

“Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act.” (Davenport & Beck 2001, p. 20)

Leaders need to become masters at the following:

  • Optimizing how they spend their precious personal AUs.
  • Teaching other leaders skills for optimizing how the spend THEIR AUs.
  • Defending the pool of AUs belonging to the people who work for you (being a “shit umbrella”).
  • Creating an atmosphere where groups of people turn their attention towards, and focus their attention on, the right problems at the right times.

Great leaders figure out how to optimize how they spend their attention units. They are skillful at using tools (such as the 5Ps) and mental models (such as only 90% of the decisions you make don’t matter) to do this. Great leaders know how to say no to requests for attention from above and below. Great leaders figure out how and when to turn up the heat to get others to focus their attention on the right things. Leaders succeed and fail based on the things they give attention to.

What tools or skills do you know of for managing your own attention economy? Please share in comments!

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

2 comments


  1. Jim Johnson

    Leaders in education are pulled in so many directions that we need to continually remind ourselves of those things that are most important so we focus our attention on those areas. Too often outside forces bring our focus away from those things that are most important and our organization strays from it’s key goal areas.

  2. Marco Ramirez

    Attention units can be distributed using Stephen Covey’s 4 quadrants of urgency and importance. In the end, we all choose. Consciously or not, the choices we make account for the return on our investment.

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