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Your Life Is Like a Three Ring Circus

How to Keep Focus on the Center Ring

As a child, my parents would take me to Ringling Brothers & Barnum Bailey Circus playing at Madison Square Garden in New York City: the famous three ring circus that is the Greatest Show on Earth.

My parents could only afford highest level seats. Usually I had a commanding view of all three rings but I would be in front of Ring 1 or 2.

The first year at the circus, I tried to take it all in: there was action in Rings 1, 2, and 3 plus the New York City audience itself had its own side shows worthy of observation.

I came home with a headache: there was too much going on for me to absorb or to enjoy.

Next year, I changed tactic.

I would focus on the Ring directly below me. Tune everything else out. Focus. Focus. Focus.

I didn’t get a headache but I was focused on the wrong thing. Since we were in the cheapest seats, the ring directly below me would often be the worst act.

By the third year, I had mastered the art of watching a three ring circus from the cheap seats at Madison Square Garden: regardless of where I was seated, focus on the center ring. Ignore everything else. Be aware that the most important act is not necessarily the in my direct line of vision.

What does this have to do with leadership or managing your career?

  1. The circus called your job probably has more than three rings to focus on. You can’t absorb it all. Don’t even try. Being effective means being deliberate about what you will NOT pay attention to. Freud once said the true mark of an intelligent person is what the person “chooses” to ignore.
  2. What is going on directly in front of you may not be the most important act in the circus. Quietly ask yourself, “Where is the Center Ring?” The greatest threats/opportunities may be oblique to your line of sight. Think of Blackberry’s dominance as a mobile business communication tool. Apple came out with the IPhone but it was not perceived as a direct competitor to Blackberry because it seemed aimed at a youthful consumer market.


“What happens if I do not spend time on this issue?” If the answer is, “Not much,” then it probably is not a Center Ring issue.

I find Stephen Covey’s concepts on time management of value in my work with my clients. There are two questions he asks: how urgent is it; how important is it?

Much of our professional lives are consumed with urgent and unimportant emails, meetings, and personal problems others bring to us. The art of leadership is to diplomatically assign someone else to handle it or deflect it, or defer it.

Issues that are both urgent and important are obvious. They command the Center Ring. You MUST focus.

Issues that are not urgent yet important are the very leadership issues that should command Center Ring attention and often are crowded out by urgent/unimportant issues. This is the problem that happened at Blackberry.

One of the reasons leaders retain coaches is to help leaders identify the Center Ring and to call the leader on it when the leader’s busy lives are diverted by those who want the leader to focus attention to the third ring of life.


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