Only a few of the entrepreneurs I have worked with in a decade of consulting are smart and humble enough to recognize that they don't know what they don't know, and have an effective process for shining a light on their blind spots.
For instance, I find that tech entrepreneurs are often so blinded by their shiny new technology that they fail to anticipate the infrastructure and political changes that gate the business.
Auto engines that burn hydrogen are a great technology, and would appear to be a great business, but getting service stations around the world and new safety legislation has already taken decades.
Every successful leader has to learn how to act with a visible confidence and faith in their own abilities and those of their team, while remaining aware of their own biases and blind spots. They need to actively avoid the hazards that come with overconfidence and excessive optimism.
The best leaders accomplish this by asking good questions and really listening to the feedback:
1. Don't preface your questions with your own assumptions.
I find that team members are often reluctant to challenge their leaders, and will tend to concur or just keep any counter-views to themselves, thus avoiding conflict that could impact their career.
Never state your position first when asking for input from others before a hard decision.
2. Always use directed questions and insist on direct answers.
Smart leaders are quick to cut off attempts to redirect the discussion or evade the question to cover a lack of knowledge or feign support. The best strategy is to narrow the question until you get a specific response or a clear indication that they have no relevant input.
3. Insist on facts and specifics to support all opinions.
Be sure to separate speculation from facts, and act only on facts. It's fair to start with what people think they know, as long as you use that to zero in on corroborating evidence and real examples. Blind spots are easily covered by opinions and speculation, but real facts are hard to counter.
4. Restate what you are hearing for confirmation.
To confirm understanding and push people to provide more information, it pays to paraphrase back from a different perspective their conclusions and recommendations.
This often leads to follow-on questions that expose the real blind spot that neither of you may be aware of.
5. Push the limits of alternative views to check for side effects.
If I suggest your technology needs validation in the market before scaling, it's fair to ask how long and how expensive that test could be. That's really a form of risk management, as well as a learning opportunity. Risk management in the face of unknowns is the primary job of a leader.
6. Expand every dialog by asking open-ended questions.
Yes-or-no questions may appear to be more efficient, but usually these don't surface the new information that may help a leader to realize what she doesn't see or understand.
Strong leaders actively seek out people who have opposing views, with the intent to overcome their own biases.
7. Look honestly at your track record on similar issues.
If this issue reminds you of your previous failures, it may indicate one of your blind spots. In these cases, I recommend some extra due diligence and soul searching to make sure you are not about to go down the same road again.
Smart leaders learn from their mistakes, and don't repeat them.
8. Regularly question and listen to a trusted adviser.
Even industry titans like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have mentors and advisers, and they use them often to search for blind spots in their own thinking. Often, an outside perspective, especially if rooted in a different industry, will give you the insight you need to make a smart leadership decision.
Today's business world is more complex than ever, and the international elements make it all the more challenging. I always recommend that you lead with your strengths, and recognize that we all have blind spots.
Surround yourself with people who have strong complementary skills, rather than less experienced people who will tell you what they think you want to hear.
The result will be fewer blind alleys, fewer required pivots, and a clearer view of your business potential and legacy. In business, it's always less painful to get it right the first time than to be in crisis and reactive mode most of the time.