Rods, Cones, and Leadership Blindness
Once you settle & stop growing, you are slowly, ever so slowly, going leadership blind.
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As we get older, our ability to see at night is increasingly impaired. According to the National Safety Council, half of all fatal car crashes happen after dark. This is an alarming statistic because only twenty-five percent of driving takes place after dark.
NSC statistics show that people are less likely to wear seat belts at night, more prone to fatigue, and more likely to be under the influence of alcohol, another major contributor is night blindness.
How does this happen and why?
More importantly, what does this have to do with leadership?
The human eye is an incredible organ within our body. It is highly complex in the way it works and intricate in design. At birth, we are born with two types of photoreceptors that process the light coming in through our pupils, rods and cones.
During the day, our vision relies predominantly on cones. These intricate structures enable us to see in color, making us unique to many of the other creatures in the animal kingdom. However, in the twilight of the evening and the early dawn of the day, our eyesight relies on a mix of rods and cones.
As daytime gives way tonight our eyesight relies almost entirely on rods. This is why, in the dark of night, everything appears mostly black and white.
But lose functionality as we age. Our eyesight begins to change. Not only do we require corrective lenses to be able to see clearly, but the rods inside our eyes slowly begin to lose functionality. The National Institute of Health estimates we lose 20-30% of our rod photoreceptors as we age.
Rods tend to fail sooner, and in greater quantity, than our cones. That explains why we are still able to see clearly in daylight, but we struggle to see clearly in low-light situations. And for people with age-related medical conditions that affect sight, this can be even more profound.
At the same time, our pupils shrink with age. Remember, our pupils are the lens that regulates how much light enters the eye. So, as we age, our pupils get smaller. This means that even less light can enter the eye and reach the rods and cones. By the time we reach 60 years of age, our rods and cones are only receiving about one-third of the light they were receiving when we were in our 20s.
And, because of the changes in our eyes, we become less sensitive to contrast changes and less able to recognize and distinguish objects like road signs (or pedestrians) against the background, especially in low-light situations.
In essence, the world gets darker as we get older.
Why aren’t we aware of this?
We aren’t aware of our loss of light because the change is SO gradual. It occurs little by little, day by day, and the changes are so subtle we are not even aware that our sight is fading.
We are slowly, ever so slowly, going blind.
Herein lies the leadership lesson.
The loss is SO gradual, so subtle, we are not even aware the loss is happening. Day by day, the loss is so miniscule, that we are oblivious to the loss. Over time it continues its relentless progress, accelerating the loss every so slowly until it consumes us.
Did you catch that?
We are slowly, ever so slowly, going blind.
In 2011, Dr. John Maxwell released “The 5 Levels of Leadership” and highlighted the growth path for successful leaders. In the first level of leadership, Position, people follow you because they have to. At the fifth (and highest) level of leadership, Pinnacle, people follow you because of who you are and what you represent. This is where you achieve significance as a leader.
But to get to Level 5, and most people won’t, you must move through the Permission, Production, and People Development stages of leadership. Each of these levels requires MORE of you and from you as a leader, which means you’ve got to continue your own perpetual journey of personal and professional growth.
Along the way, far too many people settle. They have their sights set on a single goal or objective, and once they reach that they believe they have “arrived.” They forget, for the leader, when you get to the top of the mountain, you look across the valley to discover the next mountain you have to climb.
But once you settle, you stop learning, growing, and becoming a better version of YOU. Not only do you never rise to reach your full potential, but you ultimately end up being left behind by those who were once following you, who have now passed you by, leaving you alone.
You are slowly, ever so slowly, going leadership blind.
In my signature book, “Black Belt Leadership 101,” I highlight the 10 essential character qualities to become a Black Belt Leader in Life. The second character quality is LEARN. Black Belt Leaders are lifetime learners, committed to daily becoming better than they were the day before.
Black Belt Leaders must commit to a lifetime of learning, because for the leader learning never ends. In martial arts, the Black Belt wasn’t a symbol of “arriving,” it was a symbol of being recognized as a serious student, and only then could real learning begin. The black belt didn’t designate the end of the journey, only a new beginning of deeper learning and greater responsibility.
Black Belt Leaders understand they must keep growing to continue to be effective. The world around us is changing at a rapid pace. What got us to where we are today isn’t sufficient to get us to where we want (or need) to be tomorrow.
Before 1900, knowledge was doubling every century. Today, given the great leaps we’ve made in science and technology, knowledge is doubling every 18 months. And, with the advent of AI, the sheer volume of knowledge available to mankind is now estimated to be doubling every 12 hours.
When you reach the point that you can say, “I’ve arrived. I’ve learned all I need to learn to be successful,” you just flashed a big neon sign to the world that says you’re DONE as a leader.
World-class athletes work hard on their craft to get to the Top, and they keep working hard, usually harder, to stay at the Top. They understand other up-and-coming athletes vying to dethrone them as the “Best of the Best.” So they continually hone their craft to stay at the Pinnacle of their sport.
My mentor, Dr. John Maxwell, says that leadership is influence. Once you stop learning, you just yielded the high ground to your competitors. You lose your influence, slowly, subtly, and over time, you lose your ability to effectively lead others.
Slowly, ever so slowly, you going leadership blind.
Black Belt Leaders do daily what unsuccessful people do sometimes, or not at all. They invest in their personal growth and development. They are voracious readers, rabid podcast listeners, and regular conference attendees, constantly seeking education, inspiration, wisdom, and knowledge from other successful people.
They stay in “learning mode” their entire lives, making sure they are constantly replenishing their leadership insight so they don’t go leadership blind.
Leaders lead. That requires they be able to see the path ahead, to recognize the obstacles, detours, and roadblocks that lie ahead, and to navigate a path over, under, around, or through them. They need to recognize when followers are falling behind so they can intervene and give them what they need to get caught up with the rest of the Team and back on track.
You can’t do that if you’re leadership blind.
But, as Carly Fiorini says, the status quo has great power. It’s hard to keep pressing forward, never settling for good enough. There is always the temptation to slow down or simply settle for where you are and say, “This is good enough.”
That’s like getting to Purple Belt in martial arts and saying that you’ve learned all you need to know and there’s nothing more to learn. First of all, it’s not true. It’s an excuse, an attempt to rationalize your unwillingness to keep learning and maturing.
To borrow a phrase from my mentor, Chris Robinson:
“It’s not that you can’t, it’s that you won’t. And that choice is yours.”
Next year will mark 50 years since I started my martial arts journey and having earned black belts in multiple systems, I’m still learning from gifted instructors who continue to expand my understanding, knowledge, and the real-life application of martial arts.
For a leader, there is always something MORE to learn. There is always a skill to enhance or improve upon. There is always another lesson to glean insights from, either from our own experience or learning from the collective wisdom of others’ experiences.
But once you stop learning, little by little, you begin to go leadership blind.
Or, to borrow another phrase, this time from Ray Krok:
“As long as you’re green, you’re growing. Once you’re ripe, you start to rot.”
Nobody wants to follow a rotten leader, but if you’re no longer doing what necessary to continue to learn, grow, mature, and improve as a leader, you’re starting to rot.
Slowly, ever so slowly, you going leadership blind.
So, what’s the prescription to avoid leadership blindness?
I’ve heard my friend and mentor, John Maxwell, share the answer to this question multiple times.
“The secret to your success is found in your daily routine.”
Remember, Black Belt Leaders do daily what unsuccessful people do sometimes or not at all.
Let me give you five action steps you can start doing today:
1. Invest in Yourself. Start your morning reading something educational, inspirational, or a biography of a successful person you can learn from. Determine how you’re going to apply something you read (or listened to in a podcast) to grow yourself today as a leader.
2. Prioritize your Day. Make a list of all the things you need to do, identify the Top Three, and make sure those things get done before you move on to anything else. Then return to your list, select the next three, and focus on them.
3. Stay in Your Strength Zone: Spend 80% of your day operating in the 20% of things you are best at doing. If another team member can do something 80% as well as you, give them that task so you can focus your time, energy, and effort on the 20% of things you’re best at. Remember, all of us are better than any one of us.
4. Equip Others to Lead: One of the roles of a leader is to equip those you are leading to effectively lead themselves and others so they can one day take your place. Far too many organizations fail to invest in their greatest asset, their people, equipping and releasing them to rise to their full potential as contributing members of the team.
5. Repeat Step One: At the end of your day, before you go to sleep, continue to read something educational, inspirational, or a biography of a successful person you can learn from. Journal your wins and losses today, and what you learned from each. Then, make a list of everything you have to do tomorrow so your subconscious mind (which never sleeps) can start prioritizing this list while you’re sleeping.
Leadership blindness is real. It affects far too many people who are in leadership positions but aren’t really leading. They are managing processes but not leading people. They are “leaders” in name only when, in reality, they are rotten leaders.
Slowly, ever so slowly, they are going leadership blind.
People are following them not because they want to, but because they have to. If they continue to follow them, they too will become rotten. Walk into 90-95% of businesses in America today and you will see the “blind leading the blind,” and they are oblivious to this fact.
What about you?
Are you going leadership blind?
If you’ve settled, you stopped climbing the leadership ladder, you can choose today to start climbing again. Remember, it’s not that you can’t, it’s that you won’t, and that choice is yours.
One bonus step I’ll mention in closing. World-class athletes hire a mentor, a coach, to help them not only get to the top but stay there. If you want to be a World-Class Master of Who You Are and What You Do, then you too need to make the additional investment in a mentor or a coach.
I love Coach Tom Landry’s explanation of why YOU need to hire a coach:
“A coach is someone who tells you want you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”
Or, you can choose to stay where you are, as you are, stuck, unchanging, settling for status quo, and never becoming who you have always known you could be.
And slowly, ever so slowly, you go leadership blind in the process.
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