The Most Dangerous Blind Spot

Is there anything more frustrating than a leader who is not self-aware?

He was doing great—at least in his own line of vision. As a senior director at a Fortune 500 retail company, Greg had become one of the company’s best performers, overseeing a $1 billion market. He knew he wasn’t afraid to take swift action and that he brought true intensity to his work. The company had even handed him a second market.

But it turned out that our confident district manager had a critical blind spot: himself. He didn’t realize that all that vaunted success had come at the expense of the store managers he constantly berated. Intensity, in his case, meant focusing only on what was wrong. Sure, he had managed to spot and fire failing managers before, but in his new territory, he had demoralized the team so much that too many leaders for him to oust were missing their targets. As the second market’s results sank, Greg couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Think about it: Is there anything more frustrating than a corporate executive who is clueless about his or her own weaknesses? Is there no harder leader to work with or improve?

We are talking here, of course, about the importance of self-awareness and just how dramatically it alters the workplace. Self-awareness is part of what makes up what I call a leader’s “emotional intelligence” (EI), a group of competencies that studies show may well be the best measure of a leader’s odds at success. In all, there are a dozen competencies that make up EI, ranging from possessing empathy to having a positive outlook to resolving conflict. But in the end, the one that matters most is one Greg didn’t have.

Indeed, new research done for Korn Ferry Hay Group has found that when executives demonstrate high self-awareness, they are likely to show strengths in as many as 10 of the dozen major competencies that define EI. It is the self-aware leader who has the most positive impact on a team’s working climate and performance—and who instills the most loyalty. High EI leaders, research shows, build team climates in which people know what is expected of them, have challenging but attainable goals and feel empowered to attain goals in their own way.


But Greg’s high-drive style—with the opposite effects—has become all too common in many businesses, when leaders push their people to hit ever-higher targets and put a hypercritical focus on people’s failures while ignoring successes. That may work at first, but as time goes on, it batters morale, lowers motivation and loses people. And because such leaders seem to be succeeding in the short term—as they hit quarterly targets—they turn a blind eye to the downsides in the long term.

The good news is that the blindsided leader can be turned around. Greg connected with Jennifer Joss, a veteran executive coach in Oregon, who tells me her first step was a universal one: making Greg aware of what was limiting his own success. She told him to pay careful attention to his thoughts and feelings when he talked with district or store managers about their performance, and to note what worked well and what did not. Through Joss, he also received candid feedback from 15 stakeholders, people who worked with him and could tell him how he might improve. And finally, he started to think about leaders he admired and realized he wanted to model himself on one who, early in Greg’s own career, cared about and believed in him.

When he saw himself falling back on his old confrontational style, he would take a moment and remember to apply an approach that he took with his two young daughters: Engage the person in an open, curious way—a joint inquiry that invites critical thinking and problem solving.

This exercise in self-management goes hand in hand with another EI competency: empathy or understanding and connecting with his direct reports in the moment. This attunement creates receptivity, so that his people are open to his influence, and motivated and enthusiastic about their own abilities. In fact, the results would speak for themselves: Greg’s initial market continued to perform exceptionally, and within the first six months, his new market turned in their best performance in many years. In the end, there would be confidence—and self-awareness.

See for a special series on emotional intelligence research.

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