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Leadership Blindspots

Book Review of: Leadership Blindspots

How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter


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Review of Leadership Blindspots, by Robert Bruce Shaw (Hardcover, 2014)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


One of the best leadership books to come along in a long time. It's at the opposite end of the scale from Who Cut the Cheese or whatever that silly book was. A common theme in the leadership literature is some formula for how you can be a great leader. Another common theme is a set of requirements (usually 10) that you need to meet if you want to be a great leader. But we can look at great leaders like Ken Chenault at American Express or the late Steve Jobs of Apple fame and we see they did just fine without fitting the specific idea the author has in mind for what a great leader should be.

In my own experience, I have worked under great leaders who also didn't fit the prescribed mode. But somehow, they managed to instill loyalty, motivate the troops, and avoid disasters. I have arguably been such a leader myself, though plagued by faults that are tsk-tsk'd in the leadership literature and not possessing the "must have" traits espoused therein either.

Now I understand what the missing ingredient is. And it's an essential ingredient. While most leadership books try to tell you what you need to be and how you need to change, this one is telling you that you have to work with what you've got and be aware that it's never enough. You are going to have blind spots. How you deal with them is what matters.

If this sounds crazy, then think about driving a car. You have blind spots. Being aware of them and taking appropriate measures is how you avoid having a nasty collision. The same concept applies in business leadership. I think it also applies in leadership positions outside of business; for example, how a parent leads a child (there are no omniscient parents).

It's not a situation of "Gee, I might have blindspots so I need to get rid of them." You won't get rid of them. The key to success is understanding what your particular blindspots are (and what the blindspots are of those on whom you depend) and making allowances for those blindspots. It's not a matter of eliminating them, but of working around them.

In business leadership positions, blindspots arise for a variety of reasons. Some are situational. Some are just the flip-side of the leader's own strengths. On that latter, Shaw uses the example of Steve Jobs. Basically, whatever is your strong point as a leader is also going to be your source of blindspots. For example, a highly analytical leader is likely to rely heavily on analysis and miss subtler cues. Shaw provides several case examples that illustrate this point.

The introduction alone is hugely edifying and instructive. Don't skip over it. The main text of this book consists of three sections.

In the first section, Shaw explains why blindspots matter. He talks about the dangers and rewards they present (Chapter 1), how to spot them in yourself and others (Chapter 2), the common ones that hold leaders back (Chapter 3) and why they are an ever-present challenge. There's no distilled sound-bite takeaway from this section (or the other two). I would be doing this section an injustice if I attempted to summarize it. But I can highlight something.

In the fourth chapter, Shaw discusses, dissects, and illustrates (sorry, but all those verbs really do apply here) twenty blindspots that he has seen in his work with leaders. Now, just to be clear, this isn't a list of "the" twenty blindspots. And he doesn't say something along the lines of "fix these twenty blindspots and you'll be a great leader." A given leader who crashes and burns might do so because of having just one of these blindspots, while a successful leader might have five of them but is able to deal with them effectively.

In the second section, Shaw explains how to identify (he uses the term "surface") and overcome blindspots. This takes up five chapters (five through nine). Same logic as in Section 1. Highlighting something for this review, in Chapter 6 he discusses seeking out that which disconfirms what you believe. This is actually an aspect of critical thinking, and it's something people are generally very resistant to do. Included in Shaw's advice on this are specific techniques any leader can implement.

In both sections, Shaw frequently uses tables to help the reader more easily assimilate and mentally organize the information. These are quite helpful.

So what about Section 3? It's titled "Additional Resources" and is organized into four appendices: Resource A, B, C, and D.

Resource A: Blindspot Q&A. So you get done reading the book, and some questions are still in your mind. Following the FAQ model, Shaw presents likely questions, immediately followed by the answer.

Resource B is a self-assessment. If you're looking for something that gives you a grade you can brag about, this isn't it. The idea of this assessment isn't to give you a false pat on the back, but to help you identify where you have blindspots. We all have them. They are neither good nor bad, so no shame there. What matters is knowing what yours are and then making allowances for them. This self-assessment helps you do exactly that.

Resource C is a feedback worksheet you can use if you are seeking help from others in soliciting honest feedback. One use I see for this is you could use it in place of face to face discussions and make it anonymous. I think you still need those face to face discussions, but as Shaw repeatedly points out, people don't like to take the risk of telling their boss what he's doing wrong. So for this purpose, a worksheet can help remove the fear factor so you get the actionable and honest feedback you need.

Resource D is a useful take on the traditional reading list. Each suggested resource is accompanied by a paragraph explaining why Shaw recommends it.

This book also has extensive backnotes and an index. Something I look at in notes and bibliographies is the caliber of the references. Shaw took his research seriously. If you take your leadership challenge seriously and want to excel as a leader, this book will help you do that.

This took less time to read than I had anticipated, because it's really not very long. I don't like length for length's sake, so I'm glad Shaw didn't feel obligated to add a couple hundred pages of filler just to get thud factor. His writing style is clear, and the text is accessible to leaders at any level.


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