17 February 2022 14:07:29 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Why some leaders are unaware of their blindspots

Source: Getty Images

The headline of this article Chitra Ramkrishna, the NSE CEO who let a faceless conman ‘yogi’ make all key decisions would have been funny if it was not so shocking. The article first published in The Hindu BusinessLine explained: “Chitra Ramakrishna, the former CEO and MD of NSE, India’s largest stock exchange with a combined market capitalisation of close to $4 trillion, was guided by a yogi residing in the Himalayas for the appointment of Anand Subramanian, little-known in the industry, as the exchange’s chief operating officer (COO) in 2013. The appointment cost NSE ₹5 crore.”

How could a smart business leader do something that was not just plain stupid but unethical? The institution relied on by thousands of investors was failed — not by Ramakrishna alone but surely by several of her team members, board members, regulatory authorities — all watching, knowing, suspecting but doing nothing.

How could a smart leader have so many blindspots? The truth is, she is not alone. All of us leaders and aspiring leaders have blindspots that could affect our leadership. Blindspots are usually most fatal when they fall into three categories — lack of integrity, lack of accountability, and lack of competence.

Lack of integrity

In many cases, blindspots are just an apathetic lack of integrity. Their justifications could be many — get rich quick, status, and applause. But this creates a massive blindspot that eventually brings the leader down. The team and the organisation pay the price for not standing up to this lack of integrity.

Take the ABG Shipyard scam. ₹23,000 crores of taxpayer money swindled from over 23 banks over multiple years. It would have taken a perfect storm of dishonest leaders and employees at the company, the banks, the regulators to unleash a scam this size. This is the big blindspot that leaders must watch for, which is driven from the values they bring.

As with overnight success that’s often ten years in the making, so too a failure of this scale rarely occurs overnight. As Robert Brault would say: “You do not wake up one morning a bad person. It happens by a thousand tiny surrenders of self-respect to self-interest.”

Lack of accountability

But even at ABG — what of those who didn’t participate in the fraud or did nothing ethically wrong. They facilitated it through either a lack of accountability or sheer incompetence — often both.

Finance Minister’s claim that the ABG Shipyard scam was discovered much faster than average is a galling display of a lack of accountability. Her attempt to foist the problem onto the previous government while eight years have passed on this government’s watch shows an appalling unwillingness to shoulder responsibility.

Leaders create blindspots by refusing to take accountability. If we make a habit of finding others to blame when things go wrong, of constantly making excuses then we are literally fashioning the blind spots that will lead us to crash tomorrow.

You can often spot the lack of accountability coupled with the lack of competence by the volume and consistency with which leaders complain, protest or blame. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.”

Lack of competence

We have to always ‘pressure-test’ ourselves as leaders. Do we have the competence to lead? If we lack the skill or knowledge in a particular area, are we intolerant of that and embark with urgency on the task of building that competence. Do we read enough about our industry and its nuances? Do we allow ourselves to be challenged by teammates? Are we willing to become beginners again?

Marvel’s Daredevil’s blindness forced him to hone his hearing till it became a new way for him to ‘see’. Through this new capability, he created a new mental map through which to see the world and impact it. But we must also balance confidence in our ideas with enough restraint to test drive them before speeding ahead.

Charlie Munger, the longtime business partner of Warren Buffet, would say: “If you can get good at destroying your own wrong ideas, that is a great gift.” This is an often underrated and invaluable part of competence — learning to be aware of and willing to kill our own bad ideas.

I remember once getting ready to promote a colleague into a senior role for which she was hardly ready. Thankfully, I bounced it off with my boss who reacted with shock and helped me see the folly of my decision. I not only promptly killed the idea, but learned a lesson to always bounce off important people’s choices with a ‘devil’s advocate’ before I went ahead.

Sometimes our incompetence stems from the Ludic fallacy — a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile. He defined it as, “mistaking the well-posed problems of mathematics and laboratory experiments for the ecologically complex real-world.”

Effectively thinking that the way you solve problems in the classroom is the way you will solve problems in the real world. This again creates bad blindspots. Anshul Khare used the famous case of Francis Crippen who drowned while swimming in the sea to make this point. He was a six-time US National Champion and winner of several international swimming medals. But the Ludic fallacy was that for most of his career he was a pool swimmer and as any experienced sea swimmer will tell you — the sea is no pool.

Perhaps this is what happened with the experienced pilots of Gen Rawat’s helicopter. The crash was attributed to a CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain) — simply put the pilots miscalculated where the ground was. Supremely confident in one space but a new terrain creates new risks that demand new skills.

One of the best descriptions of both the problem and the solution comes from Gene Kranz — NASA Director (Houston space centre) during the nerve-wracking Apollo 13 mission. Ed Harris played him in the movie of the same name. But Kranz’s moments of defining leadership were forged on a previous mission when a launchpad fire in January 1967 killed three astronauts. The speech Kranz gave his staff right after that became known as “Kranz’s Dictum”.

“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up… we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work…. Not one of us stood up and said, “Dammit, stop!”. I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready!

We did not do our job.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent’.

Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities.

Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased.”

We need to read that again and then again and let the depth of those words sink in. That’s integrity in action. That’s taking accountability. That’s demonstrating the bar for competence. That’s what it takes to lead.