As I furiously hit the gas to make the light, I realized one of the ways I have failed as a leader.


Thirty seconds earlier, I watched as the driver of a van failed to notice a green light in the left turn lane. I was mesmerized by this person’s failure to pay attention.

I watched in horror (OK, that might be a stretch, but work with me here) as the van continued not to move for what seemed like an eternity (seven seconds). An endless stream of cars (four) lined up behind this van eager to reach their destination, only to be stopped in their tracks by this incompetent van driver. Seriously…how does this happen?

Finally the van started to go, but missed the light, and in doing so, destroyed the free world as we know it for the countless (still four) cars behind it.

I watched. I judged. I criticized.

And I did the exact same thing.

In my fascination with the ghastly (I think that is an appropriate adjective for such an offense, don’t you?) act of another, I forgot to pay attention to my own light.

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And that is exactly what I have done as a leader.

I was always able to find fault in my team members. But, even worse, I allowed myself to get so caught up in their mistakes and shortcomings that I forgot to pay attention to what I had to do to make our team better.

There is a good chance you have exactly zero perfect people working for you. You can interview people 1000 times and be more selective than Harvard and you will still end up with an office full of imperfect people who surprise you every day with the things they can’t do.

I began to see the plank in my eye in 2007, as I was leading my first large team. I’ve been working on it ever since.

It requires a life-long commitment to focus on yourself and what you can do to improve the team. As a leader, you must (to paraphrase John F. Kennedy) ask not what your team can do for you, but ask what you can do for your team.

Here are 5 steps to remove the plank from your eye as a leader:

  1. Own miscommunications. I’ve written about this here. It’s an important first step and sets the groundwork for all of the rest.
  2. Get feedback from your team. Guess who sees your planks when you don’t? Your team. I’ve written extensively about getting feedback here and here. Involve others as well, such as your spouse and friends. There is a good chance your faults at work show up elsewhere.
  3. Take action on the feedback. Feedback almost always requires change. You may do something different. The two links in #2 share how I processed and took action on the feedback.
  4. Stop looking for specks in your team members’ eyes. I’m not suggesting you overlook genuine faults that need correction. But you need to stop seeking them out. As cliché as this sounds, you need to look for the best in others. You’ll be amazed at what you find.
  5. Repeat often. I recently had a conversation with a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 27 years. He told me that every day, he starts back at step one. He must remind himself every day of that first step. You must do the same. You must own miscommunications, ask how you are doing, act on feedback, and remind yourself to not look for specks in others.

How have you removed planks from your eye?

6 thoughts on “The Plank in a Leader’s Eye

  1. Jim Woods says:

    Matt this is awesome. We all do this–but often don’t admit it. Thanks for being vulnerable and then sharing what you learned from it!

  2. Jon Stolpe says:

    I’m having trouble reading this post. I apparently can’t see around the plankS in my eyes. Actually, I was running early this morning when a bug flew in my eye. Maybe it’s the bug still in there.

    Just kidding. Yes, I’ve had to remove plenty of timbers from myself at work and at home.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Bug, plank. Similar enough 🙂

  3. Matt good post. There is debate on whether to ask for feedback as a manager. In the past I have done it and I thought I was very open to hearing it (I don’t have much of an ego). However, it was pointed out to me that I might hold an unconscious grudge against the person giving me the feedback. When I thought about it, I think it might be true. So I have chosen only to ask for feedback in a 360 or from my boss.

    I be curious to hear what you and others think.

  4. Tom Dixon says:

    I try to make sure my team knows that I want and value their feedback. I try to encourage them to speak up – because I am not perfect and won’t take it personally. Sometimes you need the perspective of the people you work with, I know it has helped me. I suppose it starts with trust – without that, feedback won’t work in either direction.

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