You better check your blind spots

Feb 26, 2023

Identifying and fixing crucial problems is the job of leadership, but sometimes the most debilitating problems are with the leaders themselves.

learned a valuable lesson recently. I lost a person I hand-picked to be my successor. I’m not getting any younger, and I strongly believe in the adage, “always hire your replacement,” when looking for new talent. Steve Jobs probably said it best, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do.”

So over the course of a year and a half, I believed I was mentoring, encouraging, recognizing, and inspiring my new, young marketing specialist. I gave her challenging but creative projects to work on, provided feedback constructively, patiently tolerated her ever-changing work-from-home schedule, offered a ton of variety in her week, issued multiple bonuses, and ultimately thought she loved what she was doing.

Little did I know that frustration was percolating right below the surface. My blind spots created a disengaged employee, and it was already too late when I started to recognize them.

There are many kinds of blind spots, such as those that create a moral dilemma and force one to look the other way when something is wrong. But I’m referring to the leadership variety – the kind where you lack self-awareness.

In business, a blind spot is easy to miss when the only thing those in management worry about is the bottom line. When sales slip or the economy collapses, we certainly pay attention. But what about when stress, anger, or sadness arise in our employees? Do we even know what happened? Do we write it off as moodiness?

I once went through a dark period early in my career and had a boss who recognized my change in mood, but instead of patience and empathy, he told me to “get over it.” I left three months later.

I’m not much of a reader and don’t usually recommend books, but Jon Clifton of Gallup published a book titled Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It, and I recognize many similarities in my management style. In the book, he suggests that most leaders don’t know how much unhappiness there is in their business today. And that is concerning because unhappiness is now at a record high. According to Gallup, people feel more anger, sadness, pain, worry, and stress than ever.

In my case, each day, I would see a pleasant marketing specialist who outwardly appeared to be enjoying her job and her team. Yet, according to her exit interview with HR, she felt like she wasn’t getting anywhere, had no career path, and that her manager (me) needed training on how to manage people. Ouch! I’m a sensitive person, and that stung. I had no idea she felt that way.

You might be saying it’s a two-way street. Maybe it’s her, not me. Why didn’t she come talk with me and ask for help? Perhaps she’s the kind of person who never feels settled, and there’s nothing I could have done to keep her engaged and happy. But I’ll bet if I had recognized my blind spots earlier, the results would have been different.

We all work with people who have obvious blind spots. Some manifest themselves in their tone when they talk to subordinates, others in how unresponsive they are to emails and text messages, and then some get so busy and myopic they forget to stand up and walk around to engage their team. I have learned that it’s much easier to see the unconscious and self-defeating behaviors in others than our own and miss much of what’s happening around us as a result. I think this occurs because of overconfidence in our own abilities.

I’m no self-help guru, so I don’t have a quick fix that works for everyone. All I know is that my blind spots cost me a potential superstar. If there’s one thing I do recognize, great leaders are not only vulnerable and self-aware, but they also have a constant desire to improve. Identifying and fixing crucial problems is the leader’s job, and sometimes the most debilitating problems are with the leaders themselves.

Like the Gallup book details, GDP growth, stock prices, and inflation still dominate the headlines and captivate leaders’ attention. Yet absent from leadership metrics are how their people feel. This is why today’s leaders constantly miss the rise in worry, stress, sadness, and anger. When the leaders of tomorrow are asked, “What indicators do you follow most closely?” – hopefully, many of them will say “employee happiness.”  

Kraig Kern, CPSM is vice president and director of marketing at WK Dickson. Contact him at

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