4 Biggest Leadership Assumptions to Avoid

by Alli Polin on January 8, 2013

assumptions are leadership quicksand

Yesterday, I was rushing to an appointment and when I got to the turn-off to pull into the parking lot, someone else was pulling out.  I couldn’t get off of the street and they were going to have a hard time pulling out as I blocked their line of sight.  I was really annoyed.  Hello!  Can’t they see the big sign that says “Entrance Only” and leave through the exit like everyone else?

As I waited for them to exit I thought:

  • Can’t these people read?
  • Is it so hard to follow directions?
  • Why are they making it hard for me?

When I finally got into the lot, I saw the big “Exit” sign with a huge arrow on it and the enormous yellow arrows painted on the ground showing which way to leave.  I knew it, I thought, they’re stupid and I’m smart! 

I continued for the next few minutes to puff myself up over the otherwise inconsequential parking moment.  I can figure out the way out of here even when they couldn’t.  Heck, a two year old could figure it out!  Clearly, not only am I smarter than them, but also I’m kinder, more thoughtful and just an all round good person.

A few hours later, when I was ready to leave, I gingerly pulled around the building towards the exit and was met by a closed gate.  The only way out was through the entrance.  I turned the car around and sheepishly glanced at the “Entrance Only” sign on my way out and back home.

I had fallen into leadership quicksand.  Leadership quicksand looks like solid ground that can confidently and competently be stomped on, but it’s not.  In fact, it’s not like it seems at all.  When leaders walk head held high, chest puffed out, all knowing with ego leading the way, that’s the surest way to sink in deep.

Leaders often make assumptions in four areas that have big implications: Customers, Colleagues, Employees, the Organization.

1.  Leaders sink when… They make an assumption about what’s best for the customer

While customers may not always be clear on what’s possible or the best solution to their problem, they have a vision.  Pushing your agenda, vision and solutions without regard for their culture and customers is a recipe for failure.

The Way Out:

Set your ego aside and set up time with your customer to ask them how you’re doing.  Ask if they’re happy too.  Don’t be afraid of the answer.  Honesty is a gift and it will likely humble you along the way.  Embrace it.

2.  Leaders sink when… They make an assumption about the viability of their peer’s ideas

When leaders believe that they are the only ones with great ideas; that they’re better, smarter, or savvier – relationships sufferIt’s hard to build a network when you’re the most arrogant person in the room.

The Way Out:

Celebrate your colleague’s successes without expectation of return.  Resist poking holes and judging but instead ask questions to understand their perspective and learn.

3.  Leaders sink when… They make an assumption about the intersection of skills and passion for their employees

The guy on the analytics team?  He has degree in HR and a thriving blog about team building.  They new hire on the testing team?  She has a degree in psychology and a strong desire to move into operations management.  Leaders that give employees more of the same, even with bigger titles and more responsibility, ultimately are faced with the resignation of key players.

The Way Out:

Recognize two important things: 1) Today’s experiences are stepping stones not lasers. 2) The people on your teams are not you – no matter how much of yourself you may see in some of them.  The only way to know where your employees want to take their careers is to ask them.  Mentor, coach, and support.  Help people grow their skills and get to where they want to go.

4.  Leaders sink when… They make an assumption that the organization so strong that innovation isn’t necessary

Leaders that assume that the market will love them forever are delusional.  Start-ups are nimble, like riding the waves on a surfboard.  By the time it’s a full-fledged corporation, it is more like an ocean liner.  Unfortunately, for an ocean liner, it’s hard to have a 360 view of what’s in the way, stopping them from staying the course, until it’s too late.  Remember the Titanic?

The Way Out: 

Stop making up stories about how your organization is different and will never be obsolete.  Even if your industry isn’t going to disappear, business models need to evolve.  Be intentional about innovation now.  Get out of the red ocean and into the blue before it’s too late.

Assumptions don’t serve us.  Stop deluding yourself that you’re smarter, better and all-round more deserving than everyone else and step up and a be a leader.  The world needs your leadership, not your assumptions and certainly not another  egotistical, know-it all that’s better than everyone else.

What’s your experience with assumptions?  How have they helped or hurt you?

(Photo credit)

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Matthew Hawley January 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I’ve *never* done anything like what happened to you in that parking lot… 😉

Great post!


alli January 8, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Matt – Thanks! I was so high and mighty, huh? Glad to know that i’m not alone!


chris January 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Guilty! Great article with practical tips!


alli January 8, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Thanks, Chris! Sometimes when we’re deep in our assumptions it’s so easy to confuse fact and fiction. Thank goodness we can always make another choice!


Gurpreet January 8, 2013 at 11:06 pm

Have been on this edge many times…great insights that will allow me to create future leaders in my team while i improve myself as their leader.
I resonate so well with the leadership traps considering i have had some bosses who did practice all the dark rules…i guess only to teach people like me “what NOT to do when we become leaders”

Great Great Article!


alli January 8, 2013 at 11:19 pm

Gurpreet – You and me both!

Assumptions do lead us into darkness and seeing people for who they are and all that they bring is really helping others step into the light as leaders. What kind of dark rules did you run into that shaped you into a leader that makes a positive difference today?

All of the leaders I’ve worked for and all have shaped me – the good, great, bad and downright awful. Taking lessons from everyone we’ve worked with, and leaving the anger behind, is what gives each of us the potential to be great leaders for our teams, colleagues and organizations.

Appreciate your feedback!


Mike Lehr January 9, 2013 at 9:29 am

I liked your post, Alli. Thank you for getting this done. I especially like #3. Talent is often pigeon-holed and then leaders wonder why it leaves them. As for #1, the biggest assumptive error is treating all clients like their “average” client, in essence, treating them all the same. Heck, all four are great and get me going. Thank you for telling me about your post on G+. I appreciate it. ~Mike


alli January 9, 2013 at 9:55 am

Thanks so much, Mike! You’re right – Treating all clients the same, especially with cookie-cutter solutions is, a sure-fire way to miss the mark. I feel like I’ve been both the perpetrator and the victim of too many assumptions. Leaders that fall into the trap time and time again will hopefully get it before their people have left to work for other organizations!


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