Beyond Blind Spots: Leadership Development Strategies for Non-Teachable Skills

Blind spots are naturally occurring phenomena. Everyone has one. Or, more accurately, two.  On each retina, there is a small patch of real estate that lacks the receptors to respond to light.  You can see for yourself, so to speak, with these clever experiments.


There’s nothing to be done about it. You can’t “fix” your eyes. They automatically compensate for the dead zone (which is where the optic nerve attaches to each eye) so you don’t miss a thing.


The concept of blind spots is important in leadership development. Every leader has natural strengths and weaknesses. He or she may enjoy some skill sets in abundance – perhaps devising competitive strategies or motivating the team – but struggle in other areas.  Sometimes, leaders do not recognize these traits; they are blind to dominant personality factors that are readily apparent to others. This notion is at the core of developmental tools like the Johari Window.


Difficulties can arise when an executive becomes aware of a core personality trait that stands in the way of achieving full leadership potential but lacks a clear plan for dealing with it. Most leaders I work with are of the Type A variety so they are loathe to surrender without a fight. Many try for years to fix inadequacies, sometimes with little or no success.


The truth is, there are some capabilities that can be developed only to a limited degree, if at all. It goes to the Teachable Fit concept – some skills are aligned to core personality attributes that put them beyond a person’s reach, no matter how hard the effort.


Take the ability to handle ambiguity. Some leaders relish taking on poorly defined challenges or walking into unknown situations without a roadmap. Others don’t and no amount of workshops, coaching, and personal development books will change that fact. Some things are part of their personality and investing time and energy trying to change them may only yield a minimal return.


Just as in the eye, however, compensatory behaviors can take the place of missing capabilities quite effectively. Recognizing that someone doesn’t perform well in gray-zone situations, for example, opens the door to coping strategies. Before diving into a project or situation, the leader might take steps to reduce ambiguity to a tolerable level. Other team members could be tasked with handling certain situations. From a wider perspective, acknowledging a blind spot can help a leader make smarter career decisions. In this case, an up-and coming talent might be counseled to avoid roles that are highly unstructured or political by organizational design.


I worked with a COO who scored quite low on psychometrics around “structuring.” That is, he had difficulty taking a systematic approach to his work and in following guidelines and procedures. For years Marc (not his real name) beat himself up over his failure to become more disciplined and organized. He was extremely frustrated and close to burnout when I got involved. Rather than continuing down the path of trying to change Marc’s behavior, we developed the compensating strategy of restructuring how people worked with him. He acquired a personal assistant whose main duty was organizing Marc’s work schedule. The job of structuring team meetings (which were quite large) was delegated to someone else. As a result, both Marc and his team were delighted. It freed up time for him to be more strategic and develop new ways to partner with other business units, which led to better internal relations and higher client satisfaction. Instead of struggling to become what he wasn’t, Marc had the time and energy to invest in the sweet spot of his capabilities.


No one likes to fail. Every leader wants to improve. The question is, where do you place your developmental bets to optimize business performance and personal growth? If you’ve seen members of your team struggle with certain aspects of their jobs for some time, it may be worthwhile to explore their blind spots and sort out the teachable skills from ingrained personality traits that signal the need for coping strategies.