BY GWEN MORAN
There’s a mythology around great leaders. They’re visionary. They’re inspirational. They seem to know what their organizations and teams need intuitively.
But make no mistake: No one is perfect—and most leaders have blind spots, says Robert Bruce Shaw of Princeton Management Consulting Group in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of Leadership Blind Spots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter. During his years of work as a management consultant, he says he’s seen some surprising examples of leaders behaving in a way that derailed their careers or failed to address critical issues. “And you think, Why did this happen? And what I concluded is that it’s often because of blind spots,” he says.
Leaders need to be confident in their abilities, Shaw says, but have enough wisdom to know that they’re not going to see everything. And that’s not always a bad thing. Blind spots can help you maintain your confidence in the face of significant obstacles and make answers seem simpler than they actually are.
But when they inhibit you from seeing the truth or make you blind to important issues, they need to be addressed. Here are five common visionary weaknesses that can hurt you and your company, and how to manage them.
OVERESTIMATING STRATEGIC ABILITY
People in leadership positions often think that they’re more strategic than they really are, Shaw says. They may rise to their positions through commercial or operational roles and then find they’re responsible for thinking about markets, competition, and driving growth. The shift in thinking from solving operational challenges to thinking about the big-picture direction for the company is a sizeable one—and many leaders overestimate how well they’ve managed it. Before they know it, they’re lost in the weeds of operational problem solving without providing the strategic leadership necessary to drive the company forward.
VALUING BEING RIGHT OVER BEING EFFECTIVE
Finding out that you made the wrong decision or hold a viewpoint that is incorrect is never pleasant. But some leaders hold fast to being right to the point where they don’t consider information that could make them better informed and more effective. Such a blind spot can not only lead to bad decision making, but also quash the team’s interest in contributing and challenging the status quo, Shaw says. Leaders who are defensive when challenged can actually shut down their teams’ interest in contributing and innovating.
COVERING FOR WEAK TEAM MEMBERS
Sometimes, leaders have blind spots when it comes to employees, coworkers, or team members, says business transition coach Posy Gering, founder of Seattle-based Next U, a business consultancy, and author of The Next You, Discovering Confidence, Calm and Courage–Now. These people may not be performing as expected or may not have the skills necessary to do the job, she says. But our blind spots—whether selective or well-intentioned—can prevent us from seeing the problem, especially if we want the individual to succeed, she says.
“It’s almost like we want a specific outcome, so the ends justify the means to overlook certain things,” she says. Leaders may jump in to try to fix the issues they encounter with the weaker team member, but that is problematic because it sends a message to the rest of the team that the weaker individual is receiving special accommodations. At the same time, it sends a message to the individual that the boss doesn’t think they can handle the project, and is stepping in to put it back on track. Neither message optimizes the team or the working environment.
Communication is another area where leaders tend to overestimate their ability, says Dean Miles, founder and president of Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Bridgepoint Coaching and Strategy Group. “There is a disconnect between what their leaders think has been connected, confirmed, clarified, and communicated, and what has really happened.”
So, while leaders think that they have communicated, for example, their top three priorities within a specific time period, they often think they have been clear about conveying them to their team members. But when Miles asks them, hypothetically, “‘Would you be willing to bet next month’s paycheck that I could go to your direct reports, and they could give me those same three [priorities], in the same order, with the same level of confidence?’ And they can’t,” he says.
LOSING TRACK OF WHAT’S HAPPENING AROUND YOU
Whether you’re assuming you know what matters to the people on the front lines or the shop floor of your organization, or you’re underestimating your competitors, failure to stay in touch with the realities around you can lead to several areas of blind spots, as Shaw writes in his book. When you think you know more than you do without confirmation, or make assumptions about what’s happening instead of getting the facts, you risk being blindsided.
FINDING AND FIXING BLIND SPOTS
It’s not always easy to figure out what your own blind spots are, Gering says. By nature, leaders are always supposed to have the answers, so even admitting you have them can feel unsettling.
But Shaw says that clues probably lie in your history. Look at where you’ve made your biggest mistakes or where you have recurring issues in your work. If you can spot patterns, you’ve probably got blind spot clues. For example, if you have a history of team members letting you down or underperforming, you may have an issue with being overly optimistic about the talents of people who work for you.
Another way to find your blind spots is to ask trusted colleagues who are vested in your success. You don’t want to become overly vulnerable or allow such evaluation to wreck your confidence. However, getting an outside view of areas you tend to overlook can be very useful, Shaw says. Formal tools such as 360-degree evaluations or regular, structured feedback can also be useful.
But awareness doesn’t always equal elimination, he adds. Just because you know where you tend to have blind spots doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve fixed them. Surround yourself with people who can help you manage your blind spots or weaknesses. If you don’t have strong people skills, recruit someone who can help you manage your interaction with team members. If you tend to get defensive when your views are challenged, find a colleague or mentor who can help you deal with those feelings and process the information presented to you. By beefing up your team with people who help you overcome your blind spots, you’ll be able to better compensate for them, Shaw says.