Cover My Six

By David Robertson, IPLI Mentor and Chief Academic Officer at Warsaw Community Schools

If you’ve seen Top Gun, you’re probably familiar with the term “watch your six” or “cover my six.”  “Cover my six” is a slang term that means “watch my back.”  Six refers to the six o’clock position on a clock.  So if I’m facing forward, my “six” is directly behind me.  When someone “watches my six,” it means they help watch my back.

I was reminded of how important it is to have people to watch our sixes in life recently.  This week I was in Indianapolis for a conference.  To make a long story short, I had some car trouble the last morning of the conference.  Two Uber rides, one tow bill, and a rental car later, my car was in decent enough shape to attempt the two and a half hour trip home.  I wasn’t feeling too great about my odds of making it safely though, as the mechanic was upfront with me that there was still something wrong with my car, but he had patched things up enough (he thought) to get me home.  In addition, the weatherman predicted historically low temperatures for the day I was to return.  To say I was nervous about the trip would be an understatement.

Prior to leaving, I called my dad.  My dad grew up on a farm, and one of the requisite skills for small family farms seems to be the ability to be “handy” with engines.  The “handy” gene didn’t get passed to me, so whenever I’m not sure about anything car related, I typically call my dad.  By the end of our conversation my dad told me he wanted to leave from home, meet up with me, and follow me home.  He wanted to watch my six.

My first reaction was to say, “No way dad!  You don’t need to do that!  I can handle the trip home.”  He would not take no for an answer, and so we both left our respective locations and met about halfway, and my dad followed me home from there to make sure the car made it.  The good news is, we made it home with no issues.

I was struck by how good it felt to look in the rearview mirror and see my dad behind me.  It seriously surprised me.  The experience, and my reaction to it got me to thinking about leadership.

In leadership, it helps to have someone watching your six.  Yet, just as I was resistant to my dad following me home, often as leaders we resist having others “watch our six.”

What is a “six?”

In short, our “six” is our blindside.  It is the side of ourselves that we can’t easily see.  As leaders, we all have our blind spots.  We all have sides of ourselves that we cannot see.  If you don’t think you have a blind spot, yours is probably pretty big.

What’s the big deal?

So why even worry about a six, or a blind spot?  The logic is pretty straightforward; our blind side is our most vulnerable side.  Remember, we can’t see our blind side.  We can’t see our “six.”  It’s behind us.  So while we can see and anticipate problems in front of us, we can’t see the problems on our blind side.  If we can’t see the problems, we can’t address the issues.  So the “six” is a big deal.  It’s the area we’re most likely to struggle with.  It’s where we’re most vulnerable.

What do we do about our “six?”

Recognize that we have a six:  It’s hard to admit that we have issues in our leadership that we can’t easily recognize, but we all have them.  The most effective leaders seek out ways to recognize their six.  We can’t address issues if we don’t believe we have them.

Blind spots come in lots of shapes and sizes.  They are unique to each leader, so it’s hard to give a list of potential blind spots.  For me, one of my blind spots is struggling at times to accurately articulate my vision for a project or initiative.  This can often leave those I lead feeling confused about what is expected of them, and it makes my leadership ineffective.  Whatever your situation, it’s important to understand that you do have blind spots.

Mitigate the vulnerability:  The most effective leaders not only understand that they have a six, but they also find ways to mitigate the vulnerability of the blind spot.  Probably the biggest thing one can do to mitigate the vulnerability of a blind spot is to find ways to “see” the blind spots of leadership.

“Seeing” blind spots can happen in a variety of ways.  Often seeing our blind spots means having trusted individuals who can “give it to you straight” around you.  When I was a principal, I was blessed to have two teachers who would come into my office and just tell me how things were really going in my buildings.  I certainly didn’t always enjoy those conversations, but I realized that I needed them to lead well.

When crafted well, staff surveys can be an effective means of gaining a glimpse of the blind side.  A trusted mentor or supervisor can also often provide a perspective we can’t always see.  The point is, to be most effective, we must find ways to see what we don’t naturally see in our leadership.

The difficulty of “sixes”

Please understand it’s not our natural inclination to deal with our “six.”  Just like I didn’t want my dad to follow me home, we often don’t want to ask someone to “watch our six.”  Maybe we don’t want to put them out.  Maybe we are insecure about our blind spots.  Or maybe we don’t even realize we have them.  Whatever the case, we’ll never be as effective as we can be as leaders unless we have trusted people to “watch our six” and do something about it when they see issues.  When we do ask for help seeing and dealing with our blind spots, we are more effective leaders.

The power of watching our “sixes”

I felt so much better knowing my dad had my back because I knew that even if things didn’t work out, I had someone to help me out.  In leadership, things will not always work out how we’d like.  If we don’t have anyone watching our six, we end up having to deal with the issues alone.  Rarely are leaders fully equipped to deal with the issues they face alone.  If we want to be the best we can be, for our students, we’ve got to deal with our “sixes.”