The #1 Leadership Problem

Margaret Heffernan

Here is an article written by Margaret Heffernan for BNET (January 27, 2011), The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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When I meet with CEOs, I like to find out what keeps them awake at night, what intractable issues or opportunities disturb their sense of confidence. Of course, each one has industry-specific or company-specific challenges and they’re fascinating.

But there’s one problem common to each one of them. They all know it. Only a brave few will talk about it openly: Ignorance.

It doesn’t matter whether the company is large or small, old or young, high tech or blue collar manufacturing. The reality is that no leader is fully informed of what is happening on his or her watch.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

Of course in theory, this shouldn’t happen. The chain of command should ensure that information reaches the top. Daily reports should flag critical issues. Balance sheets should indicate significant trends. And they all do – up to a point. The problem is that none of them works quite well enough.

That’s why BP can run unsafe plants and still be taken by surprise when they blow up.

It’s why music labels could be blind-sided by the rise of digital downloads.

It’s why soft drink companies were surprised by the popularity of vitamin drinks.

It’s why Lehman Brothers and Enron and Citibank and Merrill Lynch had no idea actually how much money they had.

It’s why companies are so anxious about what Wikileaks will publish next.

It Can Happen to You

The most tempting thing in the world is to look at that string of business disasters and argue: that was them, not me. It couldn’t happen here. They were just bad leaders, a few bad apples. But the minute you say you don’t have this problem is the minute you know you do.

The problem is willful blindness: the human propensity to ignore the obvious. It isn’t just a business problem, of course. We do it in our private lives when we leave those credit card bills unopened or take on a mortgage we can’t afford or insist that tanning salons really won’t cause us any harm.

There are numerous social, structural, organizational and neurological reasons for willful blindness and I’ll be blogging about them over the next few weeks. But in the meantime I’d like to hear from you:in your company or department or industry, where are your blindspots?

Please click here to see the video, courtesy of Lindsay Nicholson and music courtesy of Nick Bicat.

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Margaret Heffernan worked for 13 years as a producer for BBC Radio and Television before running her first company. She has since been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom, including InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and iCAST Corporation. She has been named one of the Internet’s Top 100 by Silicon Alley Reporter and one of the Top 100 Media Executives by The Hollywood Reporter. Her books include The Naked Truth: Female Entrepreneurs Are Changing the Rules for Business Success, and the upcoming Willful Blindness. She has appeared on NPR, CNN, CNBC, and the BBC, and writes for Real Business,The Huffington Post, and Fast Company.

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