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The Dark Side of Success Lives in Your Blind Spots

All leaders like to enjoy success, both for themselves and for their organizations. We work hard for whatever we define as victory, and there’s something special about reaching our goals and riding the waves of good fortune.

There’s often a downside to success, however, and many leaders have been experiencing the fallout from it over the last several months.

If we’re not diligent, success creates leadership blind spots to the problems that lurk beneath the surfaces of our organizations. At the first sign of trouble, those problems bubble up and become significant issues that often catch leaders by surprise. Worse, many leaders deny that there really are internal problems. They see their success as proof that they have been doing everything right. Any new problems must be the result of outside forces, not internal dysfunction. They end up shifting the blame and failing to address the core issues.

A recent report by IBM highlights the realities of these blind spots in our pandemic times. It found that three-quarters of executives thought they were successfully helping their employees learn the new skills they needed in light of the pandemic, but that only a third of their employees agreed. And while 79 percent of employers said they were “adequately supporting the physical and emotional health of the workforce,” only 44 percent of employees said that was true.

I’ve found that most organizations tend to have two types of gaps – growth gaps (the gap between where you know you are and where you aspire to be) and dangerous gaps (the gap between what you think you know about your organization and what’s actually true). The IBM report highlights the types of dangerous gaps many leaders have discovered in recent months.

For example, I have a friend who is the dean of a business college that has sizable endowments and a fantastic track record for churning out top-quality graduates and first-rate research. If you had asked him back in April how well the college performed when it came to supporting diversity and inclusion, he would have said something like, “We’re pretty good. We have our own diversity and inclusion office, and it’s one of our main strategic focus areas. We have room for improvement, but I’m proud of where we are and what we’re doing.”

Then, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, students and faculty all across the country became more vocal about sharing their negative experiences. My friend’s college was no exception, and several social media posts painted a very different picture of how some students and faculty members had been treated at his university.

For me, stories like that highlight two important challenges for leaders.

One, leaders can take nothing for granted during the good times.

Financial successes and well-intentioned policies can mask all sorts of cultural problems. Leaders have to work hard to be transparent and to build trust so that workers feel empowered to speak up in good times about the things that aren’t going well. Leaders can use surveys for feedback, but it’s also critical to build strong inter-personal relationships and develop the listening skills that tune you into clues that indicate you need to go beyond a shallow how’s-it-going type of question.

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Two, leaders must proactively address blinds spots that have been exposed.

My friend could have denied his college had a problem with diversity and inclusion. He could have said the social media posts were the exceptions to the norm and that they were blown out of proportion. Instead, he double-down on his efforts to do the right thing. He promoted his director of diversity and inclusion to an assistant dean position, giving her a full-time voice on their executive committee, and he supported several new initiatives to help prevent the experiences that had happened to previous students and to improve the culture for everyone.

The reality is that leaders can’t know everything that’s going on within and throughout their organizations, and sometimes the truth is hard to take. I remember the first time I got a 360-degree report where peers weighed in on how I was doing as a leader – overall, it was very good, but a few parts really stung. But it helped me get better, because I had to know what where I was doing poorly before I could improve. The more we search for our gaps and blind spots, personally and organizationally, the sooner we can address them. That’s what leads to sustained, enjoyable success.

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