Why leaders can’t see what’s right in front of them and how they can learn to spot issues faster

Before you can diagnose the problems in your business, you need to almost take a step back and look objectively, sometimes you're too close to the detail and too emotionally invested to be rational. You can be so close that you can't see what is clearly in front of you - the real issues, the real blocks and those hurdles that look to high to jump.

You may have become conditioned to the current state so that you can't see the obvious. You may accept things for being the way they are, things that on your first day seemed so wrong. You may have allowed toxic unhealthy behaviours to creep in and or conflicts between team members to continue and you become numb to it. You just don't see the big issues anymore.

When you can't see the current state, then clearly you've lost clarity. You objectively see where you are now, where you want to go, or what you need to do to achieve. The mission  you set out to achieve is lost in day to day issues, losing your Big A agenda. That agenda or purpose now seems like a long, distant dream. The problem is that when you shift into fixing the day-to-day, you aren't really addressing the real problems. You are managing, not leading. You are only looking at the surface level issues without really understanding why they're occurring and taking them back to basics to achieve your Big A.

Your solutions are firefighting and reactive, based on the here and now rather than long term. You never seem to get ahead. It feels like you're constantly treading water and quite frankly, it is exhausting. You're working harder and harder for small gains. and you don't feel like you are succeeding at all. You never set out to make such little impact.

See with the new kids eyes

It often takes a new start or an outsider to spot these issues. You remember what it was like when you were the new kid on the block?  You looked around, watched and asked questions such as:

  • Why does this happen?
  •  Why does that happen?
  • Who is friends with who?
  • What are the behaviours?
  • How do things work around here?

Unfortunately, new starters become so focused on fitting that even when they spot something odd or off they accept it and don't actually speak up.  They need to survive and fit in and they soon adopt the culture rather than question it. As the leader you're not there to fit in, you are there to shape, challenge and vision a better way - a new way. But you do - you want to be liked just like everyone other human on the planet, and soon you forget what you saw.

That's why it's often useful to bring an outsider in. Consultants have a bad name. I even remember saying myself, "Why do we need consultants when we all know the answers?" Well the difference is that with the consultant comes a blank mind, no preconceived ideas, not emotionally involved and no agenda. They can observe, listen, ask questions and then speak up about the issues that everybody really knows. Consultants help the leader get total clarity over what the blocks and barriers are. 

I often get called into work with leader after their first full year in post. They've asked those questions themselves, they've observed, and seen the issues. They made immediate fixes and they've done really well to build momentum. They might do a restructure, bring new people in, and they might have even come up the new vision. But eventually progress starts to slow. The initial changes spiked performance, but progress slows and some people seem to works against the flow. The leader feels like they're having to do all the heavy lifting and find all the solutions , make all of the decisions and its really frustrating - especially for the impatient leader. The Wise leader then calls for help.

Strategy of change

To diagnose the blocks and barriers, you need to avoid the desire to jump in and fix the surface level issues. If people are coming to you with a problem, rather than jumping in, you need to take a step back and try and understand what's really causing the issue. I know fixing feels good and that everyone likes to feel like a hero, but that not your job. Your job is to help other people come up with the solutions so they can feel like the hero. We get addicted to being right so you need to withdraw and allow others to get that rush of dopamine instead.

So the first step is to stop doing it. Stop jumping in. Then you need to remove that ego and look with a beginner's mind. Some of the truths or issues might see might be uncomfortable or unpopular to speak about. You may be that you ruffle some feathers or maybe you need to have that conversation with someone that needed to happen years ago. Your ego trying to protect you. But this is the time to put the business and your people first and stop worrying about protecting yourself.

So you look with a beginner's mind and be that annoying child who asks Why, Why, Why?

When somebody comes to you with a problem or there's a reoccurring problem, rather than just fixing, jump into curious mode and ask why is that happening? 

3 common mistakes

Jump in rather than leaning back

When leaders jump in without understanding the root cause they become the eternal fixer. They constantly firefight and they think they're doing well because everyone's really busy. But all you're doing is firefighting to maintain the status quo. You aren't changing anything significantly. You are managing, not leading.

Ask the right questions in the wrong way.

They ask  what's gone wrong and how can we fix it? They don't really ask the deeper questions about why it has occurred and what are the underlying issues? . Badly phrased questions can feel like an accusation and people often don't speak up when they feel under threat, or they don't speak the truth of there is little trust. Your people an fix the problem, you can focus on the underlying causes of the problem and make the bigger changes - the people, the behaviours and the culture.

Failure to act on the uncomfortable truth

Leaders who get the feedback, but then they fail to act on it are making a mistake and need to take responsibility of the outcomes. , the mistake they make is they fall into justification or reasoning mode, rather than accepting. I see this show up so many times, I can't tell you the number of leaders who like to tell me all of the backstory or "excuses" as to why they are where they are right now, rather than accepting where they are and making the decision to move forward to something better.

Stop making the same mistakes.

1. Don't fix, get curious. Coach your team to find the answers and together look for solutions. Empower your team to fix urgent and important problems whilst you focus on addressing the underlying issues, behaviours, processes or culture that created the problem in the first place. This is where your holistic view can really make a high value difference.

2. Ask the right questions. Be a coaching manager. If someone comes to you with a problem, pause, take a breath and then ask some powerful questions.

What is the problem? What solutions do they have? What can be done today to fix the issue? What can be done to ensure it doesn't happen again? What do they need from you to help them? What is the real issue? How can you be of service? What would be a good outcome? If they looked ahead in 12 months, what would they like to see or experience to know a change had been made?

3. Act on feedback, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Some topics seem to continually be off the table because they are too uncomfortable. The problem is that most people see the problem and become frustrated when the issue isn't addressed. If you receive feedback and fail to act on it, you become responsible and accountable for the outcomes. We need leaders with courage and conviction, who aren't afraid to have the difficult conversations or tackle the big issues head on. Be that leader.