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the-blind-spot-imaeThere is, in all vertebrates, a blind spot where the optic fibres attach to the retina  – the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye. Though our field of vision is generally complete with no missing patches –  a sudden black hole doesn’t appear when we survey the horizon, for example –  the blind spot is nonetheless present.

Our vision remains contiguous because our brain fills in the blind spot with the missing information, “interpolating” based on surrounding detail and information from the other eye. In other words, our brain extracts from the given information and fills in the patch for us.

I was asked to speak to a community group providing teen drivers with driving tips and talks on the dangers of drinking and driving. Apparently, one of the most difficult habits to cultivate in new drivers is making that quick glance over the shoulder before switching lanes. There is an area that neither can be seen in the rear view mirror nor can it be seen in the side mirror. The only way the driver can see this spot is by slightly turning the head over the shoulder. Failure to make this quick but crucial move prior to making a lane change can be fatal. Even in driving there is such a thing called the blind spot.

This essay is not about ophthalmology or driving habits but leadership; however, there are important parallels here. Indeed, there is a corresponding “blind spot” when it comes to leadership, and part of my role as a leadership trainer is to help leaders “see” through or around these spots.

Perhaps the best way to convey the idea of the blind spot may be through the original cognitive psychological tool, the Johari Window, which was created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955. The Johari Window describes the relationship between the self and others, and basically divides the relationship into four quadrants.
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Luft and Ingham argue that there are character traits that are:
  1. Known to yourself and known to others
  2. Unknown to yourself but known to others
  3. Known to yourself but unknown to others
  4. Unknown to yourself and unknown to others
This tool has been used in leadership programs through the years but for this essay, I would like to focus only on the area known as the blind spot and what to do in order to prevent them from taking shape. In my opinion, there are two ways leaders develop their blind spots. The first is the failure of their sensors to really understand what is expected of them in a given situation. The second reason why leaders have blind spots is because they are clouded by their own vision and are so convinced that their vision must also be that of their people. If not addressed readily enough these leaders may cause irreversible damage to their organisations.

For leaders to be really in tune with what is expected of them, they must feel for information all the time. By this I do not mean for them to be on the ground all the time but they must listen to and understand the things that matter to their people. They can do this by having regular conversations with different personalities in their organisations. By this I mean to not get caught talking to the same old suspects all the time and varying the conversations to ensure a more holistic point of view about the organisation is gathered adequately.

To make this possible, leaders have no choice but to leave the comfort of their work places and initiate conversations. Once this is done enough, it becomes easier and it will even come to a point where someone else will initiate the conversations. This is the point when the leader gains clarity on what makes a particular staff member tick, what is important to them and what they expect from their leader. We can make sense to them easier this way.

How is this different from the regular official sounding staff engagement sessions or town halls? That’s exactly the problem: It’s very official. Town hall sessions remind me of the mayor when everyone is dressed in their finest-go-to-meeting clothes and all people are in their best behaviour. When the town hall sessions are done people usually go to coffee shops to talk. They talk about the town hall session.

That’s the conversation leaders want to really be a part of! I was in a change team in an oil and gas-retailing arm sometime ago and we had a family day. Typical of the company culture, all the senior management staff was seated two tables away from all the others. The then new CEO arrived, grabbed a stool and sat in a group of company drivers under a grove of cherry trees. To be sure he did not learn anything powerful about the group that day but he did a few months after that. More importantly the CEO started a culture of minimising power distance and openness in communication from that day onwards.

The second reason why leaders develop blind spots is when they assume that their vision is so great it fires up everybody. Nothing clouds a person’s judgement more than thinking that everybody is on the same page as her especially on matters of such significance like vision. The key task of a leader always, is to help make sense to the staff. She must be able to explain how the company vision makes sense on an individual basis to employees and help them connect the dots in their personal domain to those within the organisational domain.

The acid test is this: If a leader can create the same kind of energy and motivation at the reception lobby of the organisation as compared to what is seen in the executive floors, she has done a tremendous job of connecting the dots. She makes great sense. She knows what she is talking about. Her people know what she is talking about and she knows what they are talking about. There is no blind spot at all.

In summary, though a blind spot is, at times, unavoidable, but in leading people, we cannot afford to have blind spots. The impact on those being led by a leader who is clouded by the magic of his own vision is deep and wide. He must understand what makes sense to his people. Only then would his communication be precise and spot on.