In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, serial entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan examines the intricate, pervasive cognitive and emotional mechanisms by which we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseen in situations where “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.”
We do that, Heffernan argues and illustrates through a multitude of case studies ranging from dictatorships to disastrous love affairs to Bernie Madoff, because “the more tightly we focus, the more we leave out.” As the well respected cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz put it in her remarkable exploration of exactly what we leave out in our daily lives, because “attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”
But it is quite the opposite for great leaders. Great leaders have an expansive view. The various nodes in their complex network, people, resources, vendors, and customers, are observable to them at the same time. They can see the vast interrelationships among these nodes. They can perceive the channels leading from one node to another. They can see the whole rather than just the specific part.
Changing Your Perspective
Great leaders not only see the “field,” they also see the volume of the crowds in the stands, the busyness of the vendors, the fullness of the parking lots — and, of course, the Neilson ratings. What allows great leaders this expansive view? What enables them to see more than what run-of-the-mill leaders see? What allows this spacious perspective is great leaders are not invested in being right, or being in control.
To repeat, great leaders are not devoted to being right or being in control. There are many difficult areas great leaders have had to conquer to allow them to perceive the entire landscape. The primary area they have subjugated is their ego. It’s the ego that wants to be right. It’s the ego that needs to be in control. It is therefore the ego that limits perception.
The ego is designed to validate itself: that’s its design function. That’s its program. Because the ego is self-validating, the ego doesn’t want to change to reduce the likelihood of being wrong. So, it keeps itself in the same gear, on the same road, at the same speed, in the same direction. It’s the ultimate GPS. Great leaders know when to take themselves off-road.
Get Rid of Your Ego
Dampen the ego, reduce the need to be right. Check the ego, diminish the need to control everything and everybody.
Great leaders have learned to make their choices based on purpose and declared values, which is often vastly different from what their ego-voice tells them to do. They’ve left their ego behind enough times to recognize the ego’s voice when it roars. And they know when and how to disregard its instructions.
Great leaders can unchain themselves from the tight hold of being right and of being in control. The ability to unshackle enables leaders a much greater capacity to take on what is, and not what should be.
When you’re not worried about being right, when you’re not worried about losing control, you are much more open to seeing what is really is there.
When great leaders release themselves from the constrictions of being right and being in control, they enormously expand their ability to be empathetic, vulnerable, and authentic — all qualities that constitute great leadership.
Great leaders realize the thoughts and their subsequent actions of being right and being in control are fueled by blame, justification, fault, and explanation. None of these thoughts and resulting actions address what’s needed. The thoughts and the following actions of blame and fault are the antitheses of genuine responsibility. Great leaders are fully responsible.
Realizing the Obvious
Great leaders see the obvious. They see what’s truly right in front of them. They don’t avoid it. They don’t rationalize it. They don’t step around it. Great leaders step into it. Great leaders do not step over the trash.
Great leaders recognize the cost of being right. They can discern when the need to be right is knocking at the door. They are aware of their thoughts, their body’s responses, the feelings that occur with the powerful compulsion to be right. Great leaders understand recognition is the last stage before enlightenment. Once they can recognize the symptoms of being right, they can make another choice — a conscious choice.
First and foremost, if you need to be right, someone else must be wrong. That creates distance in the relationship. It creates distrust. It diminishes any possibility for partnership. Throw in the need to be in control, and it further adds force to misgivings and greater detachment in the relationship.
Listen, I get it. I don’t want to be wrong either, and I like to look good. But the need to be right does me no good at all. It doesn’t help my relationships. It doesn’t change anything in my life for the better, and it doesn’t provide solutions to problems. And it definitely doesn’t make me happy.
Letting Go of Control
To reduce the need for control, you’ll need to increase your level of trust of others. Control displaces trust. Control is generated by manipulation or domination, neither of which promotes the kinds of culture and relationships needed for high performance.
When you are aware of being right or are applying control, cut it out. It serves nothing but your ego. Being right and staying in absolute control prevents you from seeing what must be seen to keep the company on purpose, to have the company be value-driven, to have the company fulfill its vision.
Great leaders see the whole field and deal directly with what is. That’s what makes them great leaders.
Excerpted from The Business Book of Wisdom, forthcoming in 2019