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BOOK REVIEW: 'Leadership Blindspots': Management Consultant Shows How Executives Can Identify, Overcome Weaknesses That Matter
Reports that say ... that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know. —Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration
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Rumsfeld's famous -- or infamous -- formulation, came to mind when I saw the "Blindspot Matrix" in Robert B. Shaw's intriguing and readable book "Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter" (Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons, 240 pages, appendixes, notes, index, $35.00).
According to Wikipedia, Rumsfeld was derided for his statement, but also defended by Canadian columnist and author Mark Steyn -- whose books I've reviewed -- linguist Geoffrey Pullum and Australian economist and blogger John Quiggin.
Steyn called it "in fact a brilliant distillation of quite a complex matter"; Pullum said the quotation was "completely straightforward" and "impeccable, syntactically, semantically, logically, and rhetorically".
John Quiggin wrote: "Although the language may be tortured, the basic point is both valid and important."
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In "Leadership Blindspots" Shaw presents (on Page 18) a Blindspot Matrix with Leader Capabilities: "Known Weaknesses; Known Strengths; Blindspots, and Unknown Strengths. He goes on to say Known Strengths represent "you know what you know." Known Weaknesses represent "You know what you don't know." And Unknown Strengths include "You don't know what you know."
This doesn't sound all that different from Rumsfeld's formulation, which gave filmmaker Errol Morris a title for his 2013 biographical documentary about Rumsfeld: "The Unknown Known."
The blindspot risk is that leaders fail to respond to weaknesses or threats due to a variety of factors including the complexity of their organizations, over-confidence in their own capabilities, and being surrounded by deferential subordinates.
Shaw's brilliant book provides a useful model for understanding how blindspots operate and why they persist, but at the same time suggests real, actionable steps to improvement. The book details a range of techniques that make blindspots stand out in sharp relief, so action can be taken before severe damage occurs –- to a leader or his or her company.
The one characteristic great leaders share is the constant desire for self-improvement. Good can always be better. These weaknesses and threats are called blindspots because they are invisible to the individual but have the potential to wreak havoc on one's reputation and long-term success. Identifying and fixing crucial problems is the leader's job, and sometimes the most debilitating problems are with the leaders themselves.
In "Leadership Blindspots" Shaw cites many executives by name whose blindspots prevented their companies from achieving their potential goals. One in particular is Steve Ballmer, who retired as CEO of Microsoft on Feb. 4, 2014, replaced by Satva Nadella. Shaw uses the Howard Schultz quote at the beginning of my review to point out the flaws of Ballmer "who failed to keep pace with more successful rivals in areas such as internet search, smart phones, and tablets," he writes. Microsoft's stock bumped up on Ballmer's departure.
Shaw suggested that Microsoft's chairman and co-founder Bill Gates should give the new CEO a photograph of Henry Ford "as a reminder of what needs to be done." Gates has a photograph of Henry Ford on his desk.
Ford, writes Shaw, is a case study of a leader who "surrounded himself with sycophants who told the great man what he wanted to hear." Ford's failure to keep pace with automotive developments by continuing to build obsolete Model Ts led the company to the verge of bankruptcy as it lost its massive lead in automotive production to innovators like General Motors and Chrysler.
On page 97, Shaw writes that executives could benefit from a suggestion made by the great Peter Drucker years ago: "He thought that leaders could learn a great deal by writing down the reasons behind their key decisions, including their expectations of what would occur. Then, after a period of time, they should review the accuracy of their expectations and the lessons learned."
Shaw also provides dozens of case studies of executives who did the right thing, made the right decisions, treated their subordinates with dignity, listened to their contrarian views. These case studies are as valuable as the ones showing actions that harmed the companies in question.
I'm not a big fan of most motivational business books, but I have nothing but praise for "Leadership Blindspots," where insights are found on virtually every page. If I were a business executive or entrepreneur, I would buy the book by the box full and distribute copies to my employees -- including the grunts who do the actual work!
About the author
Robert Bruce Shaw is a management consultant specializing in organization and leadership performance. He has worked closely with leaders and their teams in a wide range of industries and is the author of several books, including "Trust in the Balance: Building Successful Organizations on Results, Integrity, and Concern".