I once found myself needing to find new employment. The situation that I was leaving had been complex, to say the least, and I worried that perceptions of failure would dog me as I sought new opportunities.
As part of the interview process, I met with an organization’s chief executive, who would have been my direct supervisor. After interviewing in person, he took the time to try to research my situation to determine whether I would be an asset to him. Soon after our meeting, he called me to say that he had spoken with people familiar with my performance and was prepared to hire me now that he better understood my "blind spots."
As you could likely imagine, this half-baked endorsement did not do much to increase my desire to work for him. On a positive note, the conversation did alert me to an important aspect of leadership that leaders oftentimes fail to perceive -- namely, their blind spots.
John C. Maxwell defines a blind spot as “an area in the lives of people in which they continually do not see themselves or their situation realistically.” Leadership blind spots can be found in many areas, such as workplace knowledge or expertise, leadership style, relationships or some other key domain.
A Hay Group study shows that the senior leaders in an organization are more likely to overrate themselves and to develop blind spots that can hinder their effectiveness as leaders. Another study, this by Development Dimensions International Inc., found that 89% of front-line leaders have at least one blind spot in their leadership skills.
Let’s be frank. We all have them, regardless of our robust talents and successes. We may know a lot about our work and our industry and think that there’s nothing else for use to learn. Perhaps we see ourselves as connecting great with others and fail to identify problematic relations. Maybe we think that we run great meetings, while participants feel disengaged or that we do not solicit sufficient input. Regardless of the issue, we need to be cognizant that things aren’t always as rosy as we may think and we'd benefit from getting and maintaining as clear a picture as possible of our job performance.
According to Robert Bruce Shaw, author of "Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter," there are a few blind spots that many leaders suffer from. These include:
- Strategic thinking. Shaw maintains that many leaders are better at managing operations than thinking strategically. Leaders who overestimate their strategic capabilities can face serious problems when they’re promoted into senior-level roles. Such roles put a premium on identifying and acting on new growth opportunities, which is something that’s hard to focus on if you're bogged down in managerial tasks.
- All-knowing. Some bosses think that they know more than everybody else about everything and anything. Executives in this category don’t consider others’ points of view on most issues. They often prefer being right to being effective. Not only are they not always correct, but they distance themselves from their brain trust and make it harder to explore challenges and potential pitfalls.
- Assumption. Many executives make the mistake of assuming that other people are just like them. They assume that they are motivated by similar things, think similarly, and would agree with the leader’s decisions. As preposterous as this may sound, many leaders just assume that others see things just as they do. Shaw said that this propensity for assumption can lead to poor decisions and weak work relationships. Sometimes, leaders exacerbate this problem by hiring people who are like them instead of hiring individuals who have complementary skills. In the "Top Ten Mistakes that Entrepreneurs Make," Guy Kawasaki includes one of the most pervasive blind spots that leaders often have. As Kawasaki puts it, "You need to balance off all the talents in a company."
- Stuck-in-the-past blind. Oftentimes, leaders assume that their past experiences can help them fix new problems. While this may be true at times, Shaw says, leaders will often default to old methods that do not fit the current situation. As Abraham Maslow once wrote, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Oftentimes, leaders’ desire to take action hinders their ability to pursue or consider alternative responses.
So how can leaders see past their blind spots to ensure that they are not misled about their performance and, more importantly, fail to provide the kind of objective, supportive and collaborative leadership that their people want? Shaw suggests these strategies:
- Install a warning system. Have at least one person who can offer you feedback that prevents you from being blindsided. I did this as a head of school (we called it a Head Support Committee) and that worked wonders for me in terms of getting genuine, constructive feedback in a way that did not make members feel uncomfortable in sharing their thoughts.
- Build a good team. Build a diverse team of smart people who are willing to engage with the leader and each other in productive talks and debates on the best path forward.
- Assess yourself from time to time. Use 360-degree surveys, skip-level interviews or similar feedback mechanism that point out areas of potential weakness.
Here are some other ideas worth considering:
- Get a peer mentor. Every leader can benefit from peer coaching with leaders in other organizations. This post discusses qualities to look for in a mentor.
- Be reflective. Leaders would do well to think back on their past successes and failures as a leader. What has worked for you until now? Where did you get yourself into trouble?
- Work on relationships. Relationships are the glue that hold everything in the workplace together. So much of what drives success and failure can be traced to the nature of the relational dynamic. Leaders would be well-advised to work hard on building and maintaining relationships.
Keep in mind that most folks don’t expect perfection from their leaders. They do, however, expect a leader who is self-aware and takes proper steps to minimize their impact of their blind spots. While these strategies may not eliminate our deficiencies, they can certainly reduce the frequency of them appearing while also diminishing their impact.
This post first appeared in SmartBrief on Leadership.