FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Daniel Goleman


When I was seven years old, I bought my first record album, a 45 with a recording of On Top of Old Smokey. I had wanted the song for a good while so was very excited to own it. I rushed home, listened to it and loved it. Of course, I then turned the record over to listen to the song on the flip side only to be terribly disappointed with the way it sounded. In time, I discovered that most record companies only put one good song on each 45 so that sales would be greater. While reading the popular author Chuck Swindoll years later, I found that he summarized that early experience perfectly when he noted that the flip side of expectation is always disappointment.

Swindoll’s truism also summarizes my experience of reading FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (HarperCollins, 2013, $28.99) by Daniel Goleman. A number of years ago, I read his book Emotional Intelligence and was both stunned and challenged by its excellence. My well worn copy has notes in the margins and underlining everywhere in multiple ink colors from different readings. So, when I opened FOCUS, I expected the same experience. Unfortunately, I felt instead that Goleman let me down.

That is not to say that the author did not make some good observations. For instance, his breakdown of attention is worthy of deep reflection. Early in the book, he writes:

For leaders to get results they need all three kinds of focus. Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.

He goes on to illustrate richly the inner, other and outer directions of focus from diverse arenas. American business, classics from the arts and sciences, public and private education, and even sports are used to show examples of the ways that people excel by both the understanding and deployment of this triune focus. For example, to aid in understanding inner focus, Goleman alludes to the TV show The Office to illustrate the havoc caused by lack of self-awareness. He then quotes a portion of one of Robert Burns’ poems:

Oh that the gods

The gift would gi’e us

To see ourselves

As others see us. (69)

Goleman suggests that a 360-degree evaluation is one way of gaining that perspective so that we can identify and work on weaknesses that hamper our relationships.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s classic take on the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan hones our understanding of the other focus. He notes that King “observed that those who failed to offer their aid asked themselves the question: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’

“But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” (106). The Samaritan’s focus on someone other than himself allows–even propels–him to act with compassion.

To clarify navigation of the outer world, Goleman brilliantly uses the Polynesian “wayfinder” Mau Pialug’s 2,361-mile voyage in1976 from Hawaii to Tahiti. He highlights Mau’s remarkable familiarity with the natural world that enabled him to travel a trackless ocean using only the vast store of clues he had learned to observe over a lifetime of study and practice (136-138).

Had FOCUS followed this three-point outline throughout its pages, enlarging understanding, expanding the scope of its usage, and empowering the reader to achieve and maintain attention, this reader would have been both wowed and grateful.

However, the book does not connect his thoughts well. It seems to be a series of observations held together by a title only. In addition, the sequences are disjointed and the arguments weak. If this had been advertised as a collection of essays with appropriate segues, I would have been prepared to jump around, following the author through the book. As it was, I found the experience disconcerting.

Another major problem is that Goleman does not tell me how to achieve focus. He describes the effects that lack of focus has on us individually and collectively very well, spelling out the impact on modern society clearly. But where are the answers? What do we do as persons, as families, as a nation to gain and maintain focus? Alas, we are left with a problem that has no solution.

So while FOCUS contains some wonderful nuggets, I would not put it at the top of my reading list. I would recommend that it be placed on the shelf next to your favorite chair. When you have just a little time, pick it up and read a single chapter. You will benefit from Goleman’s insights and avoid frustration with the lack of internal connections throughout the book.

Jim Mullins, CEO of UCP of Illinois Prairieland, Joliet, IL

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