The Only Thing You Have to Know About Leadership

October 4, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

The Vice-Chairman of the Board invited me to dinner. Was the purpose social or business? By the manner in which he asked me, I knew there was something on his mind. I was the CEO of the company and Rick was a long-time friend and mentor (to the extent that I was mentor-able in my thirties). He was a Virginian, respectful and understated. Sometimes so reserved you didn’t know exactly what was on his mind.

Over dessert, Rick waded slowly into risky territory. He asked me a few cryptic questions about how I thought things were going at the company. He stepped gently on a few more eggshells and asked how I thought I was communicating to my top team. I now knew where this was going and I became defensive. Rick didn’t want to hurt my feelings, start a fight, or lose a friend but he had a message he was determined to deliver.

Rick said, “Brian, do you know what a Gast Blast is?” I felt like crawling under the table but I didn’t let it show. I said, “No.” In fact, I knew exactly what he was talking about. I let Rick struggle to gingerly explain the phenomenon that my team experienced when I lost my temper and intensely, and sometimes loudly, humiliated anyone in a ten-foot radius.

I defended myself quickly, explaining with watertight logic, who deserved what. My resistance to feedback was well established and it was at this point in our relationship that Rick gave up trying. He never brought the topic up again.

What’s in Your Blind Spot?

A blind spot is an unconscious pattern of behavior or thinking that negatively affects you and those around you. You are blind to the impact that others see clearly. When called on it you quickly defend yourself and justify the behavior. Blind spots persist even after they’re brought to your attention because you don’t take responsibility for the affect you’re having on others or acknowledge you’re the source of the problem. Instead, you deny that you have a problem, or, you’ve grown so accustomed to repressing it that in your mind the issue doesn’t even exist.

To help clients become aware of their blind spots I create “hot seat” exercises during team off-sites that allow team members to deliver candid feedback to each other so they can more fully appreciate the impact they are having on each other. In my executive retreat work, I task participants with soliciting input from others on their blind spots, which is sent it to me prior to the retreat (thanks for this idea John Drury). We then do exercises pointing out the gap between the way the leaders see themselves and the way others see them.

What would people say is your blind spot? Do you threaten, bully, withdraw from conflict, over-analyze, micro-manage, become arrogant, control, disconnect, or create confusion? What behaviors leap out unexpectedly and sabotage your leadership or even your relationships or general happiness?

Your Shadow Made You Do It

If leaders did nothing else but deepen their understanding of and transform their blind spots, their leadership effectiveness would skyrocket. Your blind spot is the reason most business leadership training and education doesn’t work.

If you go to Amazon.com today and type in “diet books,” you’ll get 57,800 results. If you type in “leadership books,” you’ll get 63,544 results. With all the research performed and books written on each of these topics why do we keep getting fatter and why do so many leaders continue their uninspiring, self-centered, and generally bone-headed behavior?

Leaders who keep stumbling do so because they’re disconnected from what motivates them most. Becoming aware of your blind spot and changing the related bad habits is hard because of a psychological phenomenon called “Shadow.” Your blind spot is created by a part of you that contains all your self-perceived inferiorities and, as such, has been repressed and denied and split off from your conscious thinking.

Below is a description of Shadow taken from my upcoming book, The Business of Wanting More.

When you behave in a way you swore you’d never behave—like shouting at your daughter—you’re likely in the grip of your Shadow. Any less-than-positive emotion is a red flag that something unresolved from the past, something in your bubble, is running you. Maybe your daughter’s defensiveness was “the last straw” in a stress-filled day, but your reaction also may be a result of your own father’s criticism when you were learning something new. Rather than feel vulnerable, hurt by his anger, you suppressed the pain and decided that anger is bad so you must never get angry.

The qualities you repress or disown because you believe them to be unacceptable become part of your Shadow—your blind spot—and will be expressed forcefully, disproportionately, irresponsibly, because they’ve been excluded from your consciousness. The more you disconnect from what you don’t like about yourself, the more it runs your life, driving self-sabotaging behaviors that keep you from meeting your core needs. Jung coined the phrase, “What you resist persists.”

An essential ingredient of mature leadership is working on your Shadow. This work is about becoming connected to the disowned behaviors (i.e., you don’t even think you have them) in your blind spot. It’s taking a deep dive to fully understand and reclaim the qualities you long ago stuffed into Shadow.

The Way Out

Here are three steps to reduce the size of your blind spot and work on your Shadow:

First (this may do what the last ten books you read on leadership failed to do), take a Shadow Inventory. Think of a person you dislike or disrespect and list the negative qualities you see in that person. Review the list and, with radical honesty, see which qualities, in some form, are in you. I like to remind myself, “If I spot it, I got it.”

Next, conduct your own blind spot survey. Ask three people to list those qualities or behaviors they see in you that don’t work for them and are pattern. Note: The behavior may infrequently show up but is painful or damaging nonetheless when it does. From these two steps you should have solid list of two or three Shadow behaviors, at least one of which you are committed to changing.

Last, find someone to review the list with and explore the history of these behaviors or qualities. Ideally, this person is not your spouse or someone who works for you. When did the behavior begin? What was it covering up? What experiences occurred that made you not want to be this way? What negative beliefs did you develop about being angry, out of control, stupid, poor, selfish, etc., that eventually gave rise to a blind spot or Shadow behavior?

Ask the person you are talking with to be your accountability partner. Begin to develop a plan for how you will bring what has been unconsciously lurking in your Shadow into the light—into your awareness—so you can make more conscious choices about how you will act. One of the plans may be to tell people whom you’ve affected by your version of a Gast Blast that you are aware of what you do, that you regret the impact it has had on them and that you are going to change things. You may want to ask for their support on making this change.

If you identify and commit to breaking one blind spot behavior, you will immediately be over half way toward becoming the kind of authentic, inspiring and effective leader you want to be. You’ll also free up all that time you spend reading leadership books.

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About the Author (Author Profile)

Executive coach, top team facilitator, author and speaker. I work with individual leaders and their teams to help navigate personal and professional transitions and to increase leadership capacity and improve communication and relationship skills. I founded my coaching firm in 2001 following 12 years asa CEO. Check out more on me and my coaching process in my book "The Business of Wanting More: Why Some Executives Move from Success to Fulfillment and Others Don't"

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