Washington Lawyer

Overcoming Observational: Blindness Turning Relationship Lead Into Leadership Gold

From Washington Lawyer, January 2016

By Stan Proffitt

on-leadershipA very well-intentioned, big-hearted CEO has spent his entire career building a large firm. Along with his brilliance, he has displayed an anxiety-driven tendency to micromanage. He can’t stop himself from getting into the day-to-day issues as if every one of them was his to solve. He doesn’t just ask questions. He comes with ready-made solutions that get dispensed and dictated. His partners and senior team have grown resentful and uncommunicative with him. 

The most striking challenge in this leadership system is that the CEO can’t understand why people don’t want to talk to him. The least of the challenges in this system are the relationship patterns of over and under functioning. These patterns will change when someone in the system decides to shift his or her responses to others. A second challenge is what I refer to as “observational blindness”—the failure to see what is right in front of you. It is not the “thing” that you can’t see itself that is the problem, but the fact that you can’t see it.

But there is a deeper, more important point yet. That point is whether or not you want to see the things you currently do not. If you do, you have to overcome what in my experience as a coach is the biggest problem that leaders face: lack of interest in knowing what you don’t know. 

  • What would others say they are up against in dealing with you?  
  • What does your spouse or significant other really think about living with you
  • What behaviors and tendencies of yours make it difficult for others to connect with you?
  • What leadership behaviors on your part undermine accountability and openness in your organization?

As long as the answers to these types of questions remain “hidden from view,” they are like relationship lead. Blind to what people really think, one operates from assumptions and ignorance. When a leader gets genuinely interested in finding out what it is really like to work on his or her team, or be a colleague, that hidden lead can be turned into leadership gold.  

Gathering perspective by asking people around you for honest, direct feedback is an act of courage. Hearing the feedback without defending, justifying, or blaming is equally important. Take time to reflect on what you have heard and decide what to do about it. Demonstrating that you have heard people by sharing and taking action on what you learned about yourself is likely to give you more leadership credibility than all the answers to all the problems you can muster.  

If you do not see yourself as equipped to take up this kind of process on your own, engage someone who can help you think objectively and guide you through the process. Either way, with the help of a coach or going it alone, finding out what you don’t know could be the most helpful leadership and relationship management move you can make. The question is: Do you really want to know what you don’t know?


Stan Proffitt is president of Shoshin Leadership, Inc.