A recent church service left me completely exhausted. It was a non-stop whirlwind of loud worship music and rapid-fire delivery of both announcements and sermon. In many ways it was an assault on the senses that left very little time to think, reflect or respond.
Too often, I have the same feeling at the end of a working day, and perhaps you do too. The endless flow of emails, social media messages, texts and chats overwhelm us, demanding our attention and immediate response without providing time for careful attention.
How can one lead well in the midst of the noise and distraction? How does one do meaningful work without being drowned in the shallows, or living in a glass cage, so well described by Nicholas Carr in his books? The solution, I believe, is found in learning to live and lead with attention, and to learn and lead through listening.
To learn more about what it means to live and lead with attention you can’t do better than to start with the writings of Simone Weil. In her essay “Reflections On the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, Weil describes both the work of attention, as well as the benefits it brings. “Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application which leads us to say with a sense of duty done: `I have worked well!'”
Weil’s concept of attention is picked up in a more modern way by Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work.” Newport underlines the need in our age of distraction and constant connectedness to find ways to devote blocks of time to doing what he calls deep work, work that is focused on what is most important and meaningful, and to do it in a way that invites us to master the craft of our calling.
Related to attention, is the ability to filter out the noise that constantly surrounds us in a way that we can hear what we need to hear. Improving our listening skills, amidst the abundance of communication that comes our way, is essential for a leader. If you are looking for a starting point, you might find “The Listening Life”, by Adam McHugh, helpful.
In the world of church leadership, we have seen a growing importance placed on silent retreats, spiritual direction and contemplative prayer as means of re-connecting with God. The call to attention, listening, and deep work, is of the same kind, calling us to step out of the cacophony of connectedness and focus on the truly important.
Why not turn off your phone and computer, find a quiet place, and put a plan in place to become a more attentive, listening leader who is able to do the deep work we are called to?