Are Your Assumptions Hurting Your Ability to Lead?

Key Insights:

  • When leaders make incorrect assumptions, the consequences can be quite troubling for organizations
  • Unfortunately, leaders often rely on assumptions instead of communication when decisions need to be made
  • Leaders tend to internalize a certain set of assumptions, many of which are false
  • Through self-awareness and examination, leaders can learn to start relying less on assumptions and more on communication and community

It’s easy for me to tell when an organization is struggling with its leadership. Often, communication is severely lacking within troubled organizations. People avoid essential conversations, and the flow of information/ideas slows down to a crawl. In many of these cases, the vacuum left by the absence of effective communication is filled with an increasing number of assumptions. And that can be highly dangerous for the wellbeing of an organization and for the people inside the company.

When communication disappears within an organization, assumptions take over and tend to wreak havoc.

For leaders, making assumptions is an essential part of the role. However, when leaders fill in the gaps of their understanding with assumptions instead of communication, it can lead to chain reactions of bad decisions and miscommunication. Effective leaders are smart, and they are multifaceted in their skill sets. Therefore, sometimes they can rely on their assumptions about situations being fairly accurate, but leaders are far from infallible. When they let their assumptions about behavior and scenarios take the place of communication, they cut themselves off from their people, which alienates the workforce and can drive engagement downward.

The tricky thing about assumptions, though, is that people don’t always know when they are relying on them. Our brains create them as shortcuts designed to eliminate excess mental processing. The problem is that once they have been established in one’s mind, they tend to be enshrined there, never to be questioned again.

Inaccurate assumptions are blind spots, but they can be cured through self-awareness and a stronger commitment to communication.

What False Assumptions Are Leaders Guilty Of?

Leaders are just as human as anyone else, so they are equally as likely to hold false assumptions in their minds. At the same time, the decisions made by leaders are often more critical and pressing than those made by others within an organization. Therefore, it is very important that leaders question themselves and the assumptions they may hold, which might be holding them and their respective organizations back.

As a leader, here are some of the more common assumptions that you should question as you continue to take your abilities to the next level:

  • Leadership is about telling people what to do – In reality, leadership ought to involve asking questions and engaging in dialogue much more than it should involve giving orders to others. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes we do have to set expectations and direction for our people, which involves telling and sharing our perspective. The bottom line is that leaders are not there solely to tell people what to do within organizations. 
  • Leaders need to separate themselves and keep a distance from their people – This is an approach to leadership that comes from what feels like ancient times. Leaders tend to distance themselves from employees once they rise to positions of power. But effective leadership requires leaders to do the opposite. They should engage in communication with their people regularly, and act as the stewards of ongoing, open dialogue within the organization. You can’t keep the fires of communication burning by isolating yourself from your people.
  • Leaders are lonely decision makers – Many leaders rise into their roles with the idea that “it’s lonely at the top” burned into their minds. They see leadership as a solitary pursuit. They also see leaders as the people who must make all the decisions by themselves. This set of assumptions is quite harmful. In my view, leaders should not feel lonely; they should feel like they are part of a team where many individuals are engaged in the decision-making process.
  • Leadership means pointing out and fixing mistakes – Certainly, leaders need to be able to inform employees about when they are performing a task incorrectly or in a manner that may cause harm. Unfortunately, some leaders view their role as Critic-In-Chief for their respective organizations. Today’s leaders need to be more comprehensive in how they interact with their people. They should offer constructive criticism as well as encouragement and praise. Crucially, they should also remember to ask questions when they encounter employees who may be performing in an unorthodox manner – those employees might actually be innovating.
  • Leadership is a reward for great work – Too many leaders view the role of leadership as some kind of reward for the work they did previously. Some see it as a chance to take it easy and rest on their laurels. In reality, being made a leader is just the beginning of a new journey. It’s not about your ability to rise to the level of leadership; it’s about your ability to use what you know to inspire others and groom the next generation of leaders. Your work is just beginning, as it turns out.
  • Leadership is about making more money – While it’s true that your salary will probably increase as you move into a leadership role, that’s not the point. This is not a time to kick back and relax with the fruits of your labors. Rather, it is time to prove that your leadership is worth the compensation you are receiving in exchange for it. Ultimately, your ability to earn money will be directly and positively impacted by your ability to drive engagement and inspire your people to do their best work. Remember: leadership is not about making money; it’s about making a difference.
  • Leadership is all about power for yourself – The most ineffective leaders I have encountered in my life were the ones who were preoccupied with the idea of power for themselves. Yes, leadership gives you authority over other people within your organization, but the role of a leader is not to demonstrate power over others. As a leader, your job is to empower others and set them and the organization up for success. When the members of your team feel powerful, there’s nothing stopping your organization from achieving greatness.

Learning to Question Yourself and Your Leadership

If your objective is to be the best leader you can be, you cannot rest or remain idle. You must move dynamically through the world and be willing to let go of thoughts, ideas and assumptions, many of which you might be quite attached to. You cannot expect what worked for you yesterday to work again tomorrow, and you cannot assume that just because you have the title of “leader,” that people will follow you.

You are probably carrying several assumptions around without even knowing it, as most beliefs reside at the subconscious level. It is likely that they might be related to the ones I mentioned above. If so, examine your approach to leadership and determine if there are any assumptions or beliefs that might be holding you back. I would also suggest tuning in to your inner observer. Watch yourself as you go about your day and make choices. Are you on autopilot, letting your assumptions carry you through decisions and interactions? Or are you approaching each moment as a chance to actively lead and inspire?

The process of letting go of your leadership assumptions may not be easy, but it will carry you to a new, more dynamic level of leadership.

Stay tuned to the blog for more advice, tips and wisdom on misconceptions, assumptions and other factors that could be hijacking your leadership potential.

If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you! Send me an email at to continue the conversation.

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