As I watch my daughter polish off her bowl of porridge at breakfast, I ask “What’s wrong with the bit that’s still left in the bowl?” – a tiny bit closest to her but hidden on the inside curve of the bowl remains uneaten. “There isn’t any left!” she replies, and we both laugh as I say “You must have a ‘porridge’ blindspot!”
How many of our leaders have ‘porridge’ blindspots – everyday behaviours that dismay others somehow and to which they are completely oblivious? Can they avoid these blindspots or should we and they just accept them as an authentic part of their personality?
Theories of leadership constantly evolve, but the concept of an ‘authentic’ leader seems to have staying power: the idea that there isn’t a ‘perfect personality’ for a leader, but that it is important to develop leadership capabilities based on a person’s unique style of thinking and behaving. To a certain extent, the idea that leaders need to be authentic contradicts the notion that they should try as much as possible to eliminate their blindspots. Research confirms that some of the most effective leaders are those who possess higher levels of self-awareness, and this underlies their capacity to understand and regulate their own emotions. Recent studies have shown that this capacity accounts for anything from 30 to 70 percent of leadership success.
So, how do leaders who do not already have high levels of self-awareness develop this capacity? Herminia Ibarra, the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning, and Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, has recently given us a new slant on how it might be done. She has found that it is effective to develop new ways of thinking – what she calls ‘outsight’: “Outsight is the fresh, external perspective that comes from doing new and different things – plunging ourselves into new projects and activities, interacting with people outside our daily routines, and trying new ways of getting things done. It’s the opposite of learning by self-reflection, in which we seek insight on our past behaviors.”
By working alongside others who think differently, Ibarra believes we start to change the reference by which we judge what is possible and desirable. The best way for anyone to approach these new activities is playfully or in the spirit of experimentation: “The trick is to work toward a future version of your authentic self by stretching way outside the boundaries of who we are today.”
Using a comprehensive personality assessment such as the 16pf Questionnaire can uncover current behaviours, strengths and blind spots, and help leaders or potential leaders define themselves. After that, a process of redefinition can begin through doing new and different things and interacting with new people – perhaps playfully – testing what works and what doesn’t.
If you’re developing and coaching leaders or managers, make sure you direct them towards challenges that will expose their blind spots and, through play and experiment, turn those into sweet spots.