Are you in a Leadership Bubble?

Published on September 6, 2017

If you’re wondering what a leadership bubble is and why you should care, then please keep reading. The bad news is that leadership bubbles pose a danger for your business. The good news is that I’m going to tell you how to avoid them!

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the International Coach Federation Conference, “Converge2017: The Intersection of Coaching + Potential” in Washington, DC.

Hal Gregersen of the MIT Leadership Center opened the conference with his keynote inviting us to question if we, and our clients, exist in a ‘leadership bubble.’ The danger of being in the leadership bubble is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Business owners often feel exceedingly isolated.  Many confide their #1 challenge is “people telling me what they think I want to hear.”

We become isolated in a protective bubble created by extreme politeness, watered down feedback and the avoidance of healthy conflict. This puts our businesses at greater and greater risk because we don’t get the information we need fast enough from our teams to make critical decisions.

Flattery and opinion conformity make us overconfident and results in biased strategic decision making, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

We need the raw truth to make decisions that move our businesses in the right direction.

How do you know if you are in a leadership bubble?

Here are some questions to help you determine if you are in a leadership bubble:

  • How many barriers do people have to get through in order to talk with you? The more barriers there are, the more likely you are in a leadership bubble.
  • When was the last time you were dead wrong about something? If it’s been more than a week, there’s a good chance you are too isolated and in a leadership bubble.
  • What can you do to make your industry uncomfortable? This is powerful question that opens dialogue with your team, giving everyone permission to venture outside the comfort zone. Watch out for staying within your comfort zone. There’s a good chance it keeps you in a leadership bubble.
  • How long do you wait quietly for others to answer your questions? Good questions make us think and require at least 3-5 seconds to respond.

Quiet time is critical. Ask a question, then place the imaginary duct tape over your mouth as you wait for the response.

Hal and his team have studied over 200 catalytic leaders who are exceptional at innovating. These leaders systematically try to figure out what they don’t know they don’t know.

Hal provided a surprising strategy used by the most innovative leaders of our time to burst through their leadership bubbles:

Ask the Right Questions

 Catalytic leaders are not focused on asking a question to find a solution. Instead, they are driven to ask more and better questions, understanding that the questions we ask determine the solutions we find. There is nothing worse than a good solution to the wrong question.

As a business psychologist, I observe this frequently in my work with clients. For example, one owner recently told me he needed to find a good office manager for his growing construction business.  His question to me: “How should I go about hiring an office manager?”

I could have easily given him recruiting and hiring strategies to find his next office manager. However, I asked more questions to understand what he really needed.

As it turned out, he did not need to hire a full-time office manager, which his business would have struggled to afford, further compounding their cash flow issues.

Instead, we determined he actually needed a bookkeeper for about 20 hours per month, and a virtual assistant to organize client communication and his schedule, which would also be part-time. He decided to outsource both roles.

This one decision saved him thousands of dollars monthly on his payroll. Had we stopped short and focused on answering his initial question, “how do I hire an office manager?”, he would have made a strategic decision that reduced his profitability, possibly for years to come.

Additional strategies to break through your leadership bubble include the following:

Develop Trusting Relationships with External Leaders from Whom You Can Learn

 Develop a trusted network of business leaders outside your organization from whom you can elicit feedback and receive unbiased opinions. These networks have tremendous value in reducing the isolation we experience as leaders in our companies.  Tap into these networks to help you brainstorm better questions to the dilemmas you face.

Get Out and Seek Surprising Situations

 Get out of your office and make it a regular practice to observe the day-to-day operations of your business. Experience your business as your client does. What do you notice?

Elicit and Appreciate Honest Feedback

 Even when the message is hard to hear, thank the person giving you the feedback. Acknowledge them publicly in meetings for giving you critical feedback that informs your decision-making. This sends a strong message to your team  — it is safe to be straightforward here.

If you are in a leadership bubble, remember that every bubble has a question to unlock it.

If you would like to learn more about how Dr. Sabrina Starling, the Business Psychologist, can help you lead your business more effectively, and create a highly profitable great place to work, go to 

Sabrina Starling, Tap the PotentialWritten by:

Dr. Sabrina Starling

1 reply
  1. Donna Leyens
    Donna Leyens says:

    I also attended the ICF conference, and this was one of the most impactful presentations. As coaches we know the power of asking mind expanding questions. Mr. Gregersen reminded us of the power of not being afraid of the answer, and of accepting that as individuals, we do not have all of the answers. What is possible for you and your business if every day you ask yourself, what don’t I know that I don’t know? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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