Professional Perspectives

Focus Versus Distraction—Which Will Prevail in Washington?

Focus Versus Distraction

Arthur D. Collins, Jr.
Managing Partner, Acorn Advisors LLC

After watching several of yesterday’s Sunday morning news programs, I was struck by the number of commentators and political experts who agreed that continuing distractions in Washington were defocusing the Trump Administration and Congress from getting on with the necessary work of government. I also noted that the preponderance of airtime was devoted to speculation about ongoing information leaks, alleged wiretaps, “fake” news, and inappropriate contacts with Russian officials, rather than a serious discussion of government spending priorities and the national debt, healthcare reform, federal tax code improvements, immigration policy, infrastructure enhancements, foreign policy (including trade), and other substantive issues that affect all Americans and countless others around the world.

“Why,” I asked myself, “is all this happening?” It is a perplexing question, particularly since it has been my experience that capable leaders in government, business, or any other walk of life understand the importance of prioritizing major activities and initiatives, and then focusing their personal time and that of the organizations they lead to address the most critical tasks at hand. Conversely, I’ve observed that experienced leaders recognize how harmful significant distractions and diversions are to accomplishing any organization’s key objectives.

Even inexperienced leaders understand that while words certainly count, actions are even more important. In addition, it has been documented time and time again that inconsistencies between words and deeds undermine a leader’s credibility and ability to lead—ergo, the old adages, “walk the talk,” and “actions speak louder than words.”

Where a leader focuses his or her personal time and attention also speaks volumes about what a leader really believes is important, how a leader thinks, what values a leader holds dear, and whether the words of a leader ring true. In the December 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “The Focused Leader,” author Daniel Goleman correctly advises responsible leaders to pause and think hard about how they focus their own attention before directing the attention of others.

In assessing a leader’s personal attention, the “where” and the “how” are both important. For example, William Arthur Ward, one of America’s most prolific authors of inspirational quotes, offered a piece of sage advice when he wrote, “It is wise to direct your anger towards problems—not people, and to focus your energies on answers—not excuses.”

With all that has been written about the debilitating affects distraction can have on the achievement of key goals, it is worthwhile to point out that some leaders have purposefully utilized distraction in an attempt to deflect attention away from uncomfortable, negative, or damaging information, or to sway public opinion. While trying to “control” a situation in this manner is a tenuous course of action, putting a leader’s personal credibility at risk, it happens far too often—particularly in politics. Noam Chomsky, a noted historian and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science, noted this phenomenon when he observed: “The key element of social control is the strategy of distraction that is to divert public attention from important issues and changes … by flooding continuous distractions and insignificant information.”

After what many reporters described as a somewhat “combative,” “polarizing,” and “campaign-like” inauguration address, President Trump’s words during his first address to Congress were reported by many in the press to be much more “conciliatory” and “presidential.” A number of people speculated that a corner had been turned and that perhaps the Administration and Congress could actually work together to reduce divisive rhetoric and to get major legislation passed. That optimism appears to have been misguided—at least for now.

Returning to yesterday’s news programs and circling back to my original question concerning the underlying reasons for all the unfocused activity and distraction now occurring in Washington, I speculated on what senior advisors in the White House were thinking and saying. A previous quote from Kellyanne Conway certainly didn’t shed any light on the subject: “Voters tend to reject overreach and distraction—women in particular.”

So, once again I asked myself, “Why are there so many accusations, such prevalent combative speech, and so much political distraction currently permeating our nation’s capital?” There may be a clue in the words of White House chief strategist, Stephen Bannon: “This country is in crisis. And if you’re fighting to save this country, if you’re fighting to take this country back, it’s not going to be sunshine and patriots. It’s going to be people who want to fight.”

As I read over my first draft of this piece, I began to wonder whether I initially had asked the wrong question, with the right questions being, “What needs to be done to refocus the executive and legislative branches of government, and how can harmful distractions be reduced so real progress can be made on a number of important issues?”

I already have listed five suggestions in my previous post, “What Now, President Trump?” Beyond those suggestions, I offer one undeniable fact—politicians at all levels usually respond quickly and decisively when a large percentage of respected leaders and an overwhelming majority of the general public speak up and make their views clearly understood. So, my answer is simple. Speak up America!

Art Collins

Art Collins

Managing Partner, Acorn Advisors LLC

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