Leaders, Blind Spots and Learning

10 September 2007 Dr Karen Blakeley

We all have blind spots, they are part of the human condition, but when leaders have them it matters. Karen Blakeley explains how the more power a person wields, the more lives are affected by their decisions.

The Chambers 21st century dictionary defines a blind spot as 'any subject which a person cannot understand or refuses even to try to understand'. 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 learn from information or opinions that they dislike or feel threatened by.

Blind spots prevent us from growing and learning in response to changes in the world around us. However, when we find ourselves in a position of leadership it is often more difficult to learn. Leaders have the power to shield themselves from painful and difficult truths and followers may collude with this. As a result, leaders are often more prone to blind spots.


The visionary leader for example, may have a tendency to reject ideas that appear to be at odds with the vision or which complicate or delay its fulfilment. Having a vision can make us intolerant of alternative views. An example can help illustrate this.

Rick had been appointed as MD of a medium-sized chain of home and garden retail outlets after the business had been losing money. Rick soon got to grips with the business and developed a vision based on the values of financial discipline, personal accountability, sales focus and brand consistency.

Rick was a skilled communicator and had presented his vision widely throughout the business. However, after eight months, he started to become frustrated at the lack of progress. Having quizzed some of his closest team members, it appeared that many passionately disagreed with his approach.

In the past, each outlet had the freedom to express the specialist interests of the local managers and their team. According to many this led to high-quality products and service. Rick's emphasis on consistency and discipline was in danger of squeezing this out.

Whilst Rick understood their discomfort, he introduced new systems to monitor each outlet's turnover and profitability on a daily basis. He then worked with the HR director to bring in a new performance management system ensuring everyone was held accountable for a number of key financial objectives.

Soon, Rick and the board began to notice how turnover amongst staff was rising as were customer complaints. However, he saw this as an opportunity to recruit people who were more in tune with what he wanted to achieve. This was going to take longer than he thought but he was not going to let a couple of setbacks and an inevitable resistance to change get in his way.


This is a familiar problem. The business needs to improve its financial performance and Rick has crafted a strategy to help him achieve it. However, he is suffering from the classic 'visionary's blind spot' – he is not listening.

"Sometimes, visions fail because they reflect the needs of the leader rather than the needs of the market."

He does not have a sufficiently complex understanding of the business and he is not extracting what is valid from the inevitable complaints, natural resistances and self interest of his staff. What Rick needs to do is to open up his construing and think, "How can I introduce greater financial discipline into this business; guarantee quality and service; build a distinctive brand image; and honour the innovation, flair and empowerment that has made this business successful in the past?"

Part of Rick's resistance to this kind of thinking comes from the recognition that he will have to engage his staff in coming up with some of the answers. As a result he would have to change his approach and this could be embarrassing. Even contemplating it causes him a degree of anxiety and uncertainty.


Jay Conger, professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School explains that one reason that visions fail is that the vision reflects the needs of the leader rather than the needs of the market. Self awareness is important as this can highlight when we are making sense of people's feedback in a self-serving manner in order to protect ourselves in some way.

This can be seen throughout the commercial and the public sector. Judy Bevan's detailed account of the history of Marks and Spencer shows how Richard Greenbury, so successful in the 1980's, became obsessed with making M&S the first British retailer to make profits of £1bn.

Greenbury focused almost exclusively on the finances of the business at the expense of competitors, customers and markets. Bevan describes Greenbury's refusal to listen to other opinions:

  • "He continued to pour scorn on the competition, be it in food or clothing. One friend recalled almost pulling him round a new Tesco [M&S's closest rival] to make him aware of what it was doing. But Greenbury refused to show any interest." (Bevan J (2002), The Rise and Fall of Marks and Spencer).


The senior management of Barings bank will probably go down in history as spectacular examples of how people can be blinded by a vision – this time one of extreme personal wealth. The information showing Leeson's losses was available for anyone who took the time to investigate but many executives did not want to see it.

"If we could learn to master our blind spots, we could learn how to accelerate our learning."

When the group treasurer spoke to one senior executive about a £50m hole in Barings balance sheet, he was met with an exasperated "God, you're the guy who's always asking these time-consuming questions," (Leeson N (1996) Rogue Trader).

Of course the skills and competencies of most leaders by far outweigh their blind spots. However, if we could learn to master our blind spots, we could learn how to accelerate our learning and better keep up with the pace of change.


The following eight practices, based on research that looked at how effective leaders learned through experience, offer some daily disciplines to help leaders ensure that they are learning and overcoming potential blind spots:

  1. Direct attention: broaden your attention by listening to people you might normally dismiss; ensure you focus your attention on what is truly important to you and the stakeholders in your learning
  2. Harness emotions: notice your emotions as you make decisions and interact with people, learn to interpret how they are driving you – in helpful and unhelpful ways
  3. Overcome defensiveness: know what makes you defensive; learn to recognise your defensive behaviour and put strategies in place to overcome it
  4. Deepen sense-making: listen to others in order to make sense of events in ways that are more inclusive, more complex, more systemic and more comprehensive
  5. Engage creativity: take risks, listen to thought leaders in other fields, ask daring and challenging questions, encourage creativity in others
  6. Reality check: implement means to check beliefs against external measures of reality to avoid the temptations of denial and fantasy
  7. Change behaviour: step outside your comfort zone and change your behaviour or approach
  8. Nurture integrity: ask yourself who have you helped today? Who have you hurt? Have you acted in accordance with your deepest values or have you been driven by personal goals and desires?

The best way to confront your own blind spots is to listen to as wide a range of people as possible. In the real world, dialogue is probably one of the most important sources of learning. So the next time you find yourself getting irritated at someone's opinion, ask yourself, 'what can I learn from this conversation?' and you never know, it may help to overcome an important personal blind spot.