Planning, tactics, clear roles, and all other forms of order and discipline - to one degree or another, as leaders and as followers, in organizations small and large, frankly as humans we pine for these things. Even if untrue, they promise predictability. But here's the problem: The world around every one of us today is increasingly complex and volatile; Order in such an environment is hard to come by. But uncertainty and ambiguity are the currencies of this new century. The question then is what to do. Consider turning a blind eye.

In popular use, the expression has come to mean to overlook, neglect, or disregard something unfavorable or unpleasant. But the actual origin of the expression points to something different and worthy of your consideration. Tradition links the phrase to British Admiral Horatio Nelson. Having lost sight in one eye early in his career, he is said to have used the seeming disability to his advantage in the chaos of a heated battle. Signaled by his commander across a fleet of ships to retreat, Nelson is said to have lifted his telescope to his visionless eye, as if to blot out the order being sent. Rather than brash insubordination, Nelson saw something different than his commander did, an opportunity that required a different course of action. He chose to stay in the fight, and it turned out he was right to do so. Reflecting on it all, Nelson is said to have told his crew, "I have a right to be blind sometimes." More than a right, he had a need. Indeed, we all do.

It is remarkably easy to get stuck in your own thinking. That's a very dangerous thing in an environment that is changing rapidly and perpetually. As Nelson showed repeatedly, in a career in which he was known for the unconventional, sometimes you must choose to go off script. Nelson was considered a brilliant strategist, and the truth is a true strategist doesn't simply lay out a plan and then just blindly follow it. Instead, they constantly take in the changing circumstances and adjust. It would be easy to conclude that Nelson was brash, reckless, or lacked respect for authority. But none of those were actually true. Indeed concluding that risks missing 4 crucial lessons that Nelson's turning a blind eye teaches us about how to successfully navigate in an increasingly wobbly world.

  1. Blind Yourself Gradually. Nelson was adept and practiced at exploring what chaos theorist, serial entrepreneur, and MacArthur genius award winner Stu Kauffman calls the adjacent possible. It's the observation that you can only find a new and better way of doing things if you're willing to step outside the borders of what you know, although not as far outside and with far less risk than you'd think. According to Kauffman, just by being in the habit of stepping outside your borders a tiny bit here and a tiny bit there, you start to see new opportunities and in a new way. It's akin to, just for a moment, turning a blind eye to the things you know that would tell you just stay right where you are. Nelson, known equally as a disciplined commander and an unconventional tactician, seemed to sense this and cultivated a balanced approach that kept him not just in the game, but often ahead of it.
  2. Balance Your Hedgehog With Your Fox. The willingness to step outside your borders and into the adjacent possible is a recognition that all of us possess not one but two ways of thinking, what I call the fox and the hedgehog. We need them both. The fox is that turning a blind eye to the known and rote way of thinking. It's your creative, exploring, curious side and an important balance to your other mindset: the hedgehog. Our hedgehog mind seeks order and predictability. It too is vital. But our fox and hedgehog rely on one another and need to work in balance, something Nelson clearly knew. That means that sometimes we have to turn a blind eye, just for a moment even, to that tenaciously by the rules thinking that dominates so much of our lives and actions.
  3. Have An Anchor. Turning a blind eye by choosing your fox is a conscious choice to explore the unknown and the possible. We both hunger for this and fear it. Going beyond what we know, even a little, makes us feel less secure, that is if we have no anchor. Nelson wasn't a swashbuckling warmonger. He was a skilled strategist who understood not only his objective, but his role in the larger context of a navy and a fleet. He was as willing to retreat as he was to press on. But importantly, his decisions were always made in a larger context. Good leaders do the same. They see themselves in the larger context of the people they lead and lead with and attend to a shared purpose in everything they do. If choosing to be blind to the plan yet clear-eyed to the changing circumstances now and then better achieves the purpose, they are willing to go there - not recklessly, and not alone, but with the risk calculated and with each other.
  4. Turn Disadvantage to Advantage. Perhaps most importantly, Nelson turned what many would have regarded as a limitation into an advantage. The loss of sight in one eye, actually enabled him to see in bigger and better ways. Had he concluded that his injury was a limit, we might never have been gifted a simple expression that reminds us to look beyond our own limits sometimes. We'd make a similar mistake to forget his lesson.