As the Young Global Leader Annual Summit draws to a close in Mexico, I am inspired and even regenerated by the commitment and dedication those around me have had these past few days.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think of activism at large, and how quickly people seem to loose interest. Is it possible we are growing ever shorter attention spans?


According to National Geographic, recent research on animal intelligence shows the so-called silk ape, a type of primate, is capable of imitating others’ actions. Silk apes also have a sense of object permanence – knowing that something out of sight still exists.

But Friederike Range of the University of Vienna says primates short attention span may keep them from developing more complex behaviours. In short, their short attention span may keep them from becoming more intelligent, let alone wise.

Given the nature of modern society, I think this provides an opportunity to reflect on our own abilities as leaders. Our own attention spans might be at risk.

We live in a world of speedy trends, information overload, distracting and confusing stimuli.  As leaders trying to affect change in our organizations and the world at large, we are required to keep up-to-date with newest developments, what our competitors are up to and incessant media coverage of the world around us. We keep trying to gain better understanding of the increasingly complex world we live in and how we can best address the challenges we face

Yet some of the ways in which we deal with this complexity is in fact by creating ever more complex systems. Should complexity always call for more complexity? I wonder if, in our focus on mapping out solutions, we are beginning to resemble the cartographers in José Luis Borge’s Exactitude of Science. In their attempt to document the world around them, they created a map so detailed that it became the same size as the land itself.

There is no doubt our analytical skills and the many metrics and systems we have developed as tools will continue to serve a critically important purpose. We might combine those tools with stronger individual and collective inner compasses but that will all depend on our attention spans. Speed and distracting stimuli not only shorten our attention spans, but they also cloud our ability to listen to our intuition. And complex analysis really doesn’t help in that respect.

In the intuitive mode, our world is more of a dynamic ocean instead of a complex system. This mode relies on the individual’s ability to navigate his or her way around an ever-changing world without losing sense of integrity.

According to a recent study by the McArthur Foundation, 65% of kids today are going to be working in fields we do not even have names for. In that sort of sea of dynamics, the most important capacity an individual or organization can have is a sense of being aligned. For that to happen, we cannot do with shorter attention spans. If anything, we need to deepen our attention and possibly increase our ability to act wisely. Silk apes are fascinating beings, but it doesn’t mean we want to be them, does it?

Author: Hrund Gunnsteinsdóttir is Founder of Krád consulting. She was selected as a 2011 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Pictured: A graduating student waits for the start of Harvard University’s 358th Commencement Exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Picture taken June 4, 2009. To match feature USA-ECONOMY/STUDENTS REUTERS/Brian Snyder