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For the Greater Good

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There is an art to challenging assumptions and becoming adept at doing this is a significant leadership challenge, particularly in volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and chaotic times… like now.

The widely known tricks of the trade include:

  • Leaving your own intentions in park mode – they will colour your ability to think outside the box
  • Observing when your own assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies – what you thought was true becomes true because you think it’s true
  • Using evidence to test ideas/opportunities and threats – how do you know what you know, don’t be selective in your use of science
  • Testing your own logic – often faulty, 1 + 1 = 3, if I am my own reference point I often prove myself right
  • Thinking with people who are different – culture, age, language, religion, education, language, etc.


Assumptions are however, examples of narrow mindedness. We jump to a conclusion, attach a story (justification), carefully and thoughtfully sort the situation we are in and/or the behaviour we and others evidence to fit our thinking, and hardly surprisingly, conclude our assumption was accurate.

We know assumptions are part of our modern world – my faith if it is different from yours, is likely to be the better faith. Your political persuasion if different from mine is likely to be either wrong, or evidence of inadequate thinking. Women aren’t as strong as men, so we don’t have the same endurance. Having children means women have split loyalties in life. If I am depressed, I am weak, if I am overweight, I eat too much. I have the right to my beliefs and I think of them as ‘truths’ or ‘facts’. There is no such thing as climate crisis.

You get the picture.

I want to proffer some challenges to common assumptions that I believe need rethinking:

  1. Without a hierarchy, most large organisations would not function effectively; hierarchy is how humans most commonly organise themselves.
  2. You cannot job share the top roles.
  3. Succession planning is about identifying, recruiting, developing and promoting talented people.
  4. Collaboration works in some contexts but is not the best or only way to work together.


One: Without a hierarchy, most large organisations wouldn’t function effectively; hierarchy is how humans most commonly organise themselves.

Hierarchy has value. In an emergency, chain of command is critical. Directive leadership works. It works because: the people at the top are (hopefully) expert, we trust them (think of police, fire, rescue) and life is at risk; time is short: we trade off having a voice for clarity, certainty, safety.

Basically, it does not work effectively at any other time.

Since 1922 Harvard Business Review has been offering “break-through” thinking on leadership. Somewhere in the late 1900s they published the work of Hay/McBer (which drew on a random sample of 3,871 executives, selected from a database of more than 20,000 executives worldwide), to try and demystify what makes for effective leadership. Six unsurprising common styles emerged:

  • coercive – demand immediate compliance
  • pacesetting – leaders expect excellence and self-direction
  • coaching – develop people for the future
  • affiliative – create emotional bonds and harmony
  • democratic – build consensus through participation
  • authoritative – mobilise people to a vision.


This research became a famous Hay Group diagnostic (ILS, now owned by Korn Ferry). The styles and implications have been written up in many research articles.

But using your common sense, which styles do you think dominate organisational thinking in the main? Here is my ranking:


IS                                                                            SHOULD BE
Coercive Authoritative
Pacesetting Democratic
Affiliative Coaching
Coaching Affiliative
Authoritative Pacesetting
Democratic Coercive


Two: You cannot job share the top roles

Of course, you can, but not if you do not believe it’s possible. If your assumption is the top role is a one-person job, then the assumptions you have are built around the idea that two people job sharing will be confusing, indecisive, or undermine your authority etc. You will sell your perceptions to others convincingly. They will be accepted as sensible, the right approach. After all they fit the current paradigm.

However, what if you were entirely wrong? What if right beside you was a leader presenting you with an alternative, involving you in the discussion, putting themselves forward as a partner, being open and honest to piloting a different way of leading with a partner?

You would not hear them. You would hear threat and challenge rather than opportunity. Your thinking would likely find fault with, not potential.

That is what unchallenged assumptions do. They reassure you that your thinking is right. Belief and fact merge into what might be terminal certainty.

This just happened to a leader I know last week. The company lost a brilliant woman, an outstanding leader, to someone focused on their career, their successes. The Board heard a pitch that was familiar and voted in favour of maintaining the status quo. The challenger, the brilliant female leader, inspiring shared executive leadership, was made redundant. Their problem – too much work for one person – became her problem.

This happens over and over and over. People endeavour to bring about constructive change in the way we work, old cultures resist and often senior leaders resist with even greater determination. All too often, whether its challenging leadership, or introducing a more diverse model, inclusive of true intersectional thinking, if you do not understand assumptions, you discover that the very person or people you recruited to challenge, become the problem – it is their behaviour you are trying to fix.


Three: Succession planning is about identifying, recruiting, developing and promoting talented people.

I think you can see where I am heading. Succession planning is predicated on the assumption that incumbent leaders can identify the talent pool. In my opinion incumbent leaders mostly cannot do this effectively, or, if they do, they identify talent that is like them.

It is not uncommon. Unconsciously, we assume people like us, with talents we relate to, and a physiology we are comfortable with, are likely to be the best talent. When we smile, they do to, the same way. It feels good. I know we have processes and forms for identifying talent, but in the final moment, it comes down to unconscious biases and ‘intuitive’ feeling. Facts are replaced by something ‘other’, a gut feeling that ‘I just like this person, we will get along, we have the same values’.

Usually, a talent manager, or Human Resources leader is responsible for succession plan, picking high performers through well-tested talent management methods. When I talk to them privately, however, they often doubt their own processes. They observe the unconscious selection criteria that ultimately determine who succeeds or not and wonder if the process can be changed or improved.

So, consider:

  • What criteria do we use to identify talent? How do we know these are the right criteria? Do staff have an involvement in setting the criteria, the teams that people will be working with? If we live in a VUCA world, isn’t talent being redefined?
  • Are we starting with an assumption that needs to be challenged? Are leaders the wrong people to identify talent? Why do senior leaders think they are better at identifying talent and a team can’t do this?
  • And given the complexity of what we are now doing, the world we are living in, do we want talented individuals or talented teams or both? How will we do this?

The ability to build great performance, as the famous Google research initiative Project Aristotle discovered, is that great team performance ultimately boils down to one key attribute; trust. If people in a team trust each other, then the team will work, despite variations in the team’s model.

Do executive teams trust each other? Do people selecting talent trust each other? Do those going for jobs trust the process?

The answer is sometimes yes, but not enough and possibly not in time to make a sufficient difference to the way we are approaching this.


Four: Collaboration works in some contexts but is not the best or only way to work together.

I think this is so different from how we have led and structured our organisations. Some do it incredibly well. Some leaders understand in their bones it is the only way forward. They are humble, vulnerable, intelligent, curious, open to giving and receiving feedback. They are often great coaches and mentors. They have let go of ego, preferring we over I.

For many others, the assumptions that underpin their leadership model are so deeply mired in old belief systems that they are not open to change. There is no easy answer. They are the ones that, despite the overwhelming evidence about the state of our planet, still insist that we have time, should take the transition slowly or the economic cost will be insurmountable.

This is old world thinking.  On the contrary, the economic benefit of collaboration and inclusion will demonstrate unequivocally that it offers the best pathway to a secure future.


So, I ask, are you up for challenging your assumptions and how you behave and think? Are you up for challenging the way you lead? I definitely hope so, because it’s a worthy challenge for us all, and one that will ensure we work better, together, for the greater good.


Fabian Dattner

Founder, Speaker, Senior Consultant & Coach


To find out how we can help you, please contact us at Dattner Group.