Paying Attention

When I teach, I try to challenge students to pay attention to the world around them and bring examples related to our subject to class each week. The examples can be from the headlines or their own experiences. I’m trying to help them get in the habit of understanding their experiences in multiple dimensions. In my leadership classes, I ask for leadership examples. After all, every day each of us see examples of effective and ineffective leadership. Taking a moment to think about why that decision or that behavior was effective or not is a way to learn from others’ actions. And from one’s own behavior.

I was working at Trinity on 9/11 and teaching an undergraduate leadership class. We met the evening of the next day, and I asked the question they were already used to, “What examples of leadership have you seen since our last class?” As you might imagine our class discussion was particularly rich that day. There were many examples from the national stage, but there was also a critique of the university leadership. This student had family in the New York/New Jersey area, and she believed we should have canceled class immediately. I understood why she wasn’t persuaded by the explanation that the president was in meetings that morning and wasn’t available to discuss with his cabinet until nearly 11:00 that morning. Other students, who weren’t as immediately affected, were more dispassionate in their analysis of that call. Perspective always matters. Regardless of their point of view, it was helpful for all of us to stop and analyze what they had experienced. It was helpful to find another way to understand  that awful day. It turned out they needed the chance, because mine was the only class any of them had had that gave them a chance to talk about the day. Many students said thank you, they had needed to talk, needed a mechanism to process and a chance to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings.

After a few sessions of a class on law, students began to pay attention to the number of legal issues that were part of their daily reality. They began to see that law wasn’t merely for lawyers, but for anyone who works in an organization, especially those who work with people. Students often have very interesting examples in answer to that general question, “What legal issues have you seen this past week?”

There is also a topic that crosses both classes – the importance of paying attention to the ethics and values issues that are part of everyday life – though we often ignore them or pretend they are irrelevant to what we are doing. But whether or not we identify them this way, we make ethics and values decisions all the time. Some of them have legal and leadership components, others don’t, but they are always there whether we acknowledge them or not. Like leadership and legal questions, I hope to help students understand this reality and pay attention to these components of their actions and of the people around them.

In law school, the ethics course is called Professional Responsibility and there is a complex and comprehensive book that we studied. All of the course was very specific to the practice of law. I don’t remember us discussing general topics of ethics and values. But I have always remembered one sentence from our professor. “Only unethical people never face ethical issues.”

It’s an awkward sentence but it’s an important concept. If you are going about your business as a leader, a friend, a parent, or any other role you and you aren’t wrestling with ethical questions as you make decisions and take actions, you aren’t paying attention.

Just as important is a concept I try to get across in all of my classes is the idea that the rules – whether the law, our institutional rules, a manual of office requirements – are merely the baseline for good behavior. All of these rule books tell us the minimum behavior to stay out of trouble. None of them tell us the right decision, let alone the best decision. A rule book doesn’t answer that students question after 9/11. A rule book doesn’t tell us the best way to help someone learn how to make good decisions. It doesn’t tell us when we need to make the difficult personnel decisions.

So, the questions for today are the same as for my classes. What type of leadership have you seen lately and what can you learn from that? Have you been involved with any legal issues lately? Have you made any ethical decisions in the last week? If you say no to all (really any) of these questions, I’d challenge you to go back and review the past few days. I suspect you might surprise yourself. Paying attention to our actions as well as those of others, taking time to think through the nuances of the decisions we make, are essential leadership practices. What have you been paying attention to lately?

Take care,


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