Have you ever looked at a 3D picture and not been able to see it in three dimension? I remember the first time I looked at one, it took me a few moments to be able to defocus my eyes and stop using my traditional ‘2D seeing paradigm’. Can you recall a time when you were making lots of efforts towards attaining a specific goal only to find later that your mental construct of the challenge was erroneous and as soon as you altered your approach, success came easily.
We all have blind spots – they are part of the human condition. But when leaders and people in authority and power have blind spots, it matters. We all have patterns, habits, and beliefs that limit us. The challenge is that we generally can’t see how those thought-patterns and beliefs hold us back and what we can’t see tends to sabotage our efforts. Blind spots can severely impact an executive’s strategic vision, their course of action, and their rate of success. They impact decision-making and creativity (or lack thereof) in solving problems and they act to limit the strategic initiatives we are willing to consider. They even affect how we relate to others – hampering our leadership effectiveness, our political adeptness, and our executive presence.
A popular model of blind spots is known as Johari’s window, a model created by J. Luft and H. Ingram in 1955. In their model, the blind spot refers to an aspect of our personality that is not known to self but is apparent to others. For example, others may notice that you lack eye contact when talking to people while you are completely unaware of this. The notion of a blind spot incorporates more than a simple lack of understanding; it includes the sense that the person does not want to expand their understanding by listening to views or opinions they in some way ‘dislike’. The lack of impartiality and refusal to try to understand implies that we are biased towards accepting certain kinds of information and ‘blind’ with regards to other kinds of information. This is not to say that we have a blind spot whenever we disagree with any idea presented to us. Blind spots only become a problem when they prevent us from adapting to changes in our environment. It doesn’t matter what our experience in life or in business has been, what our background is, our age, level of education, or intelligence. We’re all subject to blind spots. Executives, like everyone else, acquire blind spots from life, but as leaders, they suffer additional blind spots caused by their need to operate within the corporate environment.
The fact is, knowing yourself isn't as easy as it sounds. We all have our blind spots, no matter how brilliant and accomplished we are. Self-knowledge, at its most basic level, involves recognizing thoughts and emotions, decisions and biases, strengths and weaknesses of oneself in real time. When executives train themselves to recognize and examine the reasons for their actions and reactions, they are better prepared to evaluate complex situations and make clear decisions.
Make no mistake: your emotions affect others, whether you are aware of them or not. Operating with no awareness of them is like trying to play a football match with both your shoelaces tied together.
The collapse of Barings Bank
In 1995 Nick Leeson became renowned as the person who single-handedly brought down a bank. Leeson had bought futures in the Singapore money market. Futures contracts enable you, for a cost up front, to buy or sell shares commodities or currencies at a future date for a fixed price. If, in the meantime, the market price rises above the one you fixed, you are in profit; if it goes below your fixed price, you are in loss. Leeson bought futures and for a while made profits. However, the price started to go against him and started to make huge paper losses. However, he was able to conceal this fact to many of his senior executives. Leeson, interviewed by Judith Rawnsley for her book ‘Going for broke’ claimed he got away with it for so long because his senior executives were too busy and too self-important to really focus on the issues at hand, alluring blind spots for executives. Leeson reported that he found it incredibly easy to distract his senior executives into believing a lie as he made them feel they were going to become amazingly wealthy. The alternative was uncertainty and the fear of losing their bonuses and their prestige. The Barings Bank story was a classic case of blind spots affecting an entire organization, contributing to the downfall of a company that had been trading for over a century.
Blind spots show up in our beliefs, our thoughts, and our actions. These beliefs are self-limiting and are often at odds with the goals we say we want to achieve. Our beliefs are formed – good or bad, limiting or expansive – as we develop from childhood into adulthood. We formulate these beliefs from the stories we invent as we seek to explain events. Unfortunately, we view these events through the lens of immaturity and without having all the facts. These flawed stories act to limit us and sometimes even come to define us. The key to moving past these limiting beliefs is to replace them with beliefs formed from fresh perspectives.
Leaders often fall into the trap of continuing to do what has worked in the past. They have achieved results with their vision, talents and abilities; yet these are no guarantee of continued success in the current changing workplace environment. Author and founder of The Integral Institute, Ken Wilber, says: “Today's business and world leaders are faced with unprecedented complexities and rates of change in markets and social conditions. This places extreme pressure on leaders to develop all aspects of themselves to the highest degree possible…. their cognitive, emotional, inter-personal, and ethical capacities, as well as their fundamental sense of self…. Only those who develop to this level…. will be successfully equipped to manage a profitable, sustainable growth business or effective organization.”
When it comes to our thoughts, the same thinking that got us where we are, can’t take us further. If we keep thinking in the same way, we’ll keep coming up with the same kinds of solutions. Our thinking becomes stagnant without outside stimulation. Albert Einstein famously said “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were when we created them.” The only way to expand one’s thinking is to seek out new perspectives, which of course, comes from seeking outside input. When we get attached to the process of how we imagine attaining success, we become blind to other possibilities. And when that happens, we’re like a fly incessantly beating its wings against a pane of glass trying to reach its goal. It doesn’t matter how hard we try if we’re pursuing success in the wrong way. When we’re not willing to consider other courses of action, we limit our success. How does one distinguish between dogged determination and blindness? It usually requires input from an outside, unbiased source.
Blind spots within the corporate world arise from two sources. The first source is corporate culture – corporate culture in a general sense as well as the specific “culture” of an organization. We hold beliefs about how organizations should function, how they should be structured, and which behaviors are valued. Every organization has its own special culture – either by design or by default. And while a corporate culture can be an asset, it often acts to create blind spots with executives. The second source of executive blind spots stems from the need of leaders to achieve productivity through others. As executives, we run the risk of our thoughts and beliefs being influenced by the thoughts and beliefs of the people under our guidance.
The Evergreen project
A study of over 160 companies, between 1986 and 1996, examined what variables helped companies outperform their competitors. In reporting the research, known as “The Evergreen Project”, the authors showed that senior executives directly influence a company’s profitability not only through their technical competencies but also, if not more so, through their ability to learn and to spread learning. Successful leaders would (a) build relationships with people at all levels of the organization and inspire the rest of the management team to do the same and (b) spot opportunities before competitors and address problems before they became nightmares.
Both of these skills relate directly to a leader’s learning, accomplished by being on the front line and updating his/her living knowledge of operations and customers. The most successful leaders in ‘The Evergreen project’ spent time regularly touring sites, talking to people and absorbing information, ideas and new developments. They would then disseminate their learning throughout the company, overcoming internal rivalries and divisions, spreading learning and a willingness to seek change and innovation. A leader’s ability to recognise opportunities and address problems is directly related to their ability to confront potential blind spots.
Have a look at these common blind spots and give yourself an honest rating on each of them:
1. Under-communicating strategic direction and priorities
Priorities are never as clear as we think. In our world of hyper-information availability and constant communication, multiple sources of input drastically dilute your staff’s focus on top priorities and organizational goals. Consider it a competition for an employee’s mindshare – your company’s strategic goals versus email, day-to-day business, side projects, voicemail, family, friends and the latest local or international political upheaval.
An effective leader approaches gaining mindshare for priorities like any other advertising campaign – by increasing volume and frequency to cut through the clutter. Every meeting, every one-on-one, should start by aligning the current topic with the top priorities, creating a clear and compelling message.
2. Poorly communicating expectations and objectives
Without clear definitions of success, management and employees can be aiming for very different levels of performance, creating significant risk in the execution of strategic projects. There is nothing that sucks energy out of a team more than thinking they’ve met or exceeded key objectives, only to be told the expectations were much different.
Starting with a clear vision of a project and how it relates to overall priorities, great leaders set precise targets, timeframes and other explicit measures at the beginning. After a short duration of time, they need to check back in order to ensure alignment with that vision. This not only prevents any drift from the goals, but also allows for corrections and an ability to add resources if necessary before a small issue becomes a big one.
3. Not ‘Walking the Talk’
A very common blind spot of leaders at all echelons of society is not walking the talk. This occurs when leaders are not aware of their values and behave in a mode of ‘Do what I say not what I do’.
Our behavior patterns are so unconsciously ingrained that too many leaders flout the very behaviours and values they profess will bring success to their team. There is nothing more discouraging to team members in witnessing their leader(s) saying one thing and doing another.
Self-knowledge is the basic cornerstone of success and one of the fundamental characteristics of good leaders. Ask yourself: What are your blind spots? Believe me, we all have them! How well and how often do you recognize your own array of thoughts, feelings, values, biases and emotional state? How accurately do you assess your job performance or your relationship with different individuals? How often do you get or are surprised by feedback on your performance? How intuitive are you?
Breaking free of limiting thoughts and beliefs is essential for achieving the results you want; however, there are some inherent challenges in releasing blind spots. Many blind spots are so deeply ingrained within our make-up, we’re no longer aware they control us. Without outside perspective, these beliefs appear to be truths. It’s important to keep in mind that generally these limiting beliefs are YOUR truths rather than THE truth. It is critical that you identify and release the self-limiting blind spots which hold you back if real progress is to be made. This is an area where a 360 degree feedback process, an honest look at your history of successes and failures and work with an experienced coach can be invaluable.
Quantum Vision’s ‘Transformational Leadership’ may provide you with such a process. Contact us for details.