08/14/2012 04:57 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

Management Wisdom: A Healthy Ego or Deadly Blind Spot?

Gifted people -- even spectacularly gifted people -- don't necessarily become great leaders. For that, you can blame management "blind spots" that cause most persons to sputter out or crash along the road to the top.

I'm privileged to have had legendary leadership guru Warren Bennis and former USC president Steve Sample as mentors. They teamed up to teach one of the nation's great courses on leadership for some 15 years at USC. Both men, coming from different worldviews, developed a keen sense of what separates great leaders from the rest. Often this would come down to an aspiring leader's need to develop a healthy ego and a strong sense of self -- while navigating safely around the vanity-related cliffs that claim so many promising careers.

Having worked alongside Bennis and Sample for many years, along with a number of other outstanding leaders and experts in business and education, I've come to identify seven blind spots in particular that can capsize a talented person -- along with a snapshot of what it would look like to overcome those blind spots.

Blind Spot No. 1: You don't know that they know about your Achilles' heel.
THE WRONG WAY: You're the only person in the room who isn't aware of that fatal flaw that will keep you from your dreams. Everyone else is quite familiar with it, as they talk regularly about how you talk too much or take no prisoners or quit too easily or are unreliable. They may even secretly hold support group meetings to cope with you. But they're not planning to tell you, because it's easier to talk about someone's flaws behind their backs than to their faces, and they fear that you might hate them or hurt them if you knew what they all thought. In short, you don't know how to make backstabbing work for you instead of against you

THE RIGHT WAY: You are able to solicit an authentic, brutally honest 360-view of yourself, courtesy of colleagues, friends, family and, whenever possible, a skilled shrink. Caution: This is not for the faint of heart. You should hold off on such feedback until you are truly ready for it (in other words, after you're confident you can follow through on your promise not to passive-aggressively bludgeon others with silent contempt after they tell you what you didn't hear).

Blind Spot No. 2: Your radar works better than your gyro compass.
THE WRONG WAY: You walk into a room and immediately start reading other people's feelings. You want everyone to be happy -- more importantly, you want them to be happy with you. You change your mind and your direction in the face of resistance. You know that pride is supposed to be bad; but now you're frustrated, because you're neither bold enough to take what you want nor humble enough to settle for less. You have no "True North."

THE RIGHT WAY: You remain sensitive to people's feelings, but you're not held hostage by them. You've given yourself permission to initiate -- to introduce your own passionately held vision of True North, in order to give people something to stand up for or against. You don't judge your actions solely by how much applause you get: A Simon Cowell can mock your abilities in front of a large audience, but you will not crumble.

Blind Spot No. 3: Your gyro compass works better than your radar.
THE WRONG WAY: You're trampling people on your way to your goals. You're dimly aware that other people have their own feelings and agendas, but you're not entirely sure what that has to do with you getting to your True North. You have certainty about your direction, just like all those other fools who raced off cliffs on their way to the stars.

THE RIGHT WAY: You still move toward your True North with an infectious energy -- but you also can adjust course before you race off life's cliffs. You have conviction, but you're not pig-headed. For maybe the first time in your life, you can walk into the room and take the crowd's temperature, getting a sense for what their own goals are and steering yourself accordingly.

Blind Spot No. 4: You should have been in front of the camera, not behind it.
THE WRONG WAY: You're actually a lousy manager. You stink at follow-through, execution or tough decisions, and this thankless task of leadership is giving you an upset stomach and a contempt for most of humanity. But you do it anyway because you're convinced that you need the glory of being an "important leader."

THE RIGHT WAY: You realize that you can have more impact, and more satisfaction, by dropping out of management and this whole business of changing cranky people's diapers. You can be the actor on the screen, not the migraine-addled director; a cable news pundit instead of a public servant who needs to be held accountable; a Nobel-winning researcher instead of a university president; or any number of high-profile jobs that won't ruin your day and other people's days.

Blind Spot No. 5: You're trying to prove yourself, instead of just expressing yourself.
THE WRONG WAY: You feel your life won't be complete till people far away adore you, so you invest in imaginary relationships instead of real relationships with the real people right in front of you. Your own family and friends get a small fraction of your care, because you know you can't be worshipped adequately by the people who've seen your neurotic side at Thanksgiving dinner.

Experts have shown that happy, well-adjusted people don't try to take over the world. They put in an honest day's work -- then go home and toss the ball around with the kids. It's the unhappy, poorly adjusted people who try to prove themselves by, er, "putting a dent in the universe" and they too often leave an ugly dent that doesn't prove anything.

THE RIGHT WAY: You invest as much energy in the human beings in your life as you do with people you'll never meet. Your goal is to express yourself, not to prove yourself. When you die, the saddest people at your funeral will be the ones who knew you closely, not the ones who didn't know you closely.

Blind Spot No. 6: You'd never admit it, but you still secretly think that it just might be all about you.
THE WRONG WAY: You treat life as if all eyes are supposed to be on you.
THE RIGHT WAY: You treat life as if you're the world's most skilled talk-show host, helping everyone to shine and have a good time. As Bennis observed, it was said that when you had dinner with one former politician, you walked out thinking, "That fellow has got to be the wittiest and most charming person around!" But when you had dinner with one of that politician's chief rivals, you walked out thinking, "I've got to be the wittiest and most charming person around!" The smart leader emulates the shrewdly generous politician who allows (and even helps) others to shine. People will make any sacrifice for that kind of leader.

Blind Spot No. 7: You never can say goodbye.
THE WRONG WAY: Julius Caesar was loved by the people, which allowed him to keep accumulating power in the Roman Republic. He became the first living Roman leader to see coins minted with his image and statues depicting him as more than human. Not long after he became "dictator for life," 60 senators decided enough was enough. Because the people loved this flawed dictator, a messy civil war resulted, the sort not seen again until Joe Paterno's statue was removed from the Penn State campus.

THE RIGHT WAY: Cincinnatus was the man who had absolute power and the character to give it up. He was a Roman aristocrat who fell on hard times and had to retire to a small farm, where he spent long days plowing. Twice he was called away from the farm to serve a six-month term as dictator leading Rome against invading forces. Twice he handed power back early and returned to his farm after he was done repelling the invaders. Many experts consider George Washington to have been the American Cincinnatus, and it could be said that many organizations and countries failed because their leaders lacked the Cincinnatus gene. John Wooden was a Cincinnatus in his realm, in a way that Paterno wasn't able to be -- and the consequences were cosmic.

Again, it's not easy to overcome these blind spots -- it will take many, many hours of honest self-reflection and willingness to receive feedback from friends, family and colleagues. But it will make all the difference in your legacy.