The greatest threat to your leadership lies not in what you can’t see. Those unforeseen blows are painful to be sure, but the unforeseeable happens to every leader sometimes. The worst nightmare is not what you can’t see.

It’s the danger you do see coming — but choose to ignore — that will really leave a mark on your leadership. Whether you lead a family, a Fortune 500 company, a small start-up, or a non-profit ministry, such blind spots call into question your judgment, wisdom, and integrity — critical planks in the platform of any successful leader.

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General Ulysses S. Grant taught me this leadership lesson a few weeks ago. Well, he didn’t actually do it because he’s — well, you know, who’s buried in Grant’s tomb and all that. But I encountered his worst nightmare when our family visited the sacred battleground of Shiloh, Tennessee.

How It Happened

The South had lost several key battles, sustaining heavy casualties. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston faced growing cries of treason over the losses. He was a desperate man with little left to lose. On the Northern side General Grant seemed to be coasting after the latest round of victories. Wanting the numbers in his favor, Grant chose to wait in the Shiloh area while awaiting reinforcements from the east.

It was raining. A lot.  Historic flood levels. It was then that Grant chose to ignore a threat that nearly cost the North the war. Given the circumstances, he assumed that the South would not attack. He so dismissed that idea that his subordinate generals even castigated the colonels who repeatedly insisted that an attack was coming. The dissenting leaders were threatened with a court-martial if they spoke of it again. To make matters worse, Grant gave orders to pull back the picket lines, the advance guard that would have sounded an alarm, in order to remove any chance of inadvertant conflict.

Fortunately for the North, Colonel Peabody disobeyed Grant’s orders and sent out a scouting party. Shortly after sunrise, Peabody’s band of 250 peered through the early haze to see 10,000 Confederate soldiers coming over the hill — and the battle was on. Grant faced every leader’s worst nightmare that first day of fighting as the South routed his men. Only the arrival of reinforcements in the night saved the North and General Grant’s legacy as a leader. 23,746 men died in two days.

Here’s how you can avoid your own worst nightmare:

  • Identify Your Assumptions. What you don’t take time to know CAN hurt you. We all make assumptions, most of them necessary to avoid being paralyzed by options. Know what they are and note those that might be suspect. Keep a file, legal pad, or Evernote folder handy to jot down the assumptions that support your key decisons. Make reviewing assumptions part of your regular review of life’s key priorities.
  • Ask “What If?” If Grant had paused to ask, “What if they are more desperate than I am?” the battle, if it happened at all, might not have been the bloodiest in the war to that point. Cultivate the habit of asking yourself, “What if I’m wrong?” Imagination will be key at this point. Give yourself the freedom to imagine, not just the wildest success, but also the potential for your worst nightmare. Don’t dwell on it, but wishful thinking won’t cut it when 10,000 troops march through the mist in your direction.
  • Listen for Alarms. Don’t pull back life’s picket lines because they’re not telling you what you think you should be hearing. It doesn’t take much to ensure that if the unthinkable heads your way, you will know it. The alarms might sound different for each of us: Your neglected wife’s off-hand comment about forgotten dinner plans. Your secretary’s unguarded remarks about your competitor’s handy product line. A curious dip in sales that your team chalks up to the whims of the market.  A few families missing from the pews as your elders praise your latest sermon series. Listen before, and you might survive to lead after.
  • Clear Your Baffles.  You may recognize the phrase from that classic Clancy film “The Hunt for Red October.” It refers to the method used by submarine captains to take the time to look behind them.  Only the arrogant assume they’re not being followed. Unfortuantely, arrogance all too often tempts those in command. The Biblical example of the Babylonian king Belshazzar comes to mind. After he saw handwriting on a wall — literally — the prophet Daniel told him that his kingdom was about to come to an end at the hands of the Persians. Belshazzar responded by giving Daniel gifts and, apparently, continuing to party:

“That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius took over the kingdom.” (Daniel 5:30)

Grant narrowly avoided the same fate in his worst nightmare. You can do better. Put these tips into practice in your leadership to ensure you don’t wake up one day to your worst nightmare.

Have you ever been blindsided by something you should have seen coming? What lessons did you learn from it? Share your story with a click here for all to grow.  

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