When Our Assumptions Lead Us Astray

How often are we in situations where what we want and what others want are not aligned? We make assumptions daily, mostly about other people. These assumptions enable us to take shortcuts, and at the same time, they cause disagreement that perhaps wasn’t there to begin with.

  • We assume a person attended or didn’t attend an event because…
  • We assume a person responded to us a certain way because…
  • We assume a person took action or didn’t take action because…

What if, instead of assuming, we paused and asked:

  • What is the reason you made this choice or took this action?
  • When your customer complains about “service,” do you probe to understand what is really going on?
  • As the TSA reminds us when we see something, do we say something?
  • When an employee behaves a certain way, do we ask what is really going on?

Listen, Please

As leaders, we are problem solvers. Problem-solving is a crucial strength required in a leader. And yet, sometimes, the best solution is to simply listen.

When I first began working as an executive coach, I believed that my role was always to motivate my client toward action. While I still believe action is required to achieve results, I have also learned that, and often have to remind myself, that sometimes, it’s best to just listen.

Sometimes all a person wants is the opportunity to think out loud. And for us, as the listener, to do just that. To simply listen, not offer advice, perhaps ask a question or two and then allow them to sit with their own questions, their own reflections, and come to their own answers. 

Sometimes being heard is enough. Perhaps at a later date, it’s time for action.

Reduce Your Choices

How often do we pause during a day and ask ourselves, “what was my intention today? What did I want to accomplish?” 

  • What if, instead, discipline became a habit? 
  • What if, instead, we gave ourselves fewer choices each day?
  • What if, instead, we prescribed our day such that we spent more time on action and less on deciding?

According to Tony Schwartz, author of Why You Need to Make Your Life More Automatic, “the more conscious willpower we have to exert each day, the less energy we have leftover to resist our brain’s primitive and powerful pull to instant gratification.”  

Conversely, the more of our key behaviors we can put under the automatic and more efficient control of habit — by building something he calls “Energy Rituals” — the more likely we are to accomplish the things that truly matter to us.

And the fewer decisions we have to make, the more likely we are to make better decisions. This sobering story, Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue? by John Tierney, drives home both the value and the societal impact of leaders choosing to make fewer choices. 

So how do you get started? Begin by slowing down. Then decide your priorities and make those a daily habit. With the remaining time, reduce your choices. The counterintuitive result is by doing less, we accomplish more. 

Was Fraud The Intent or the Outcome?

Thank you for allowing this shameless self-promotion before today’s story. In October, I was a guest on the Northern Trust Advisors Podcast, and I just learned that this podcast made their top ten for 2021. So exciting! Here’s a link if you want to listen to a 1.5-minute excerpt. 

Psychologists, anthropologists, everyone who studies the human brain tells us we are hardwired to respond to stories.

A while back, I watched two documentaries chronicling stories told by storytellers who were later indicted for fraud, Billy McFarland, founder of Fyre Media and creator of the Fyre Festival, and Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos. 

Perhaps because I watched them back to back, I was struck by the common themes. Both founders passionately believed in their stories and told them well, so well, that investors and buyers flocked to them. 

We will never know whether these storytellers and others like them set out to commit fraud or whether they believed so passionately in their stories that they were blind to the facts. 

Regardless of their intent, their stories were compelling, and investors and customers bought in. 

This past week, a jury convicted Elizabeth Holmes of three counts of fraud. And Billy McFarland was convicted of two counts of fraud in 2018.

For me, these cases raise important questions for us as leaders: 

  1. When does confidence become hubris?
  2. How do we recognize the difference between believing in our vision and blind passion? 
  3. How do we ensure that we monitor and evaluate our endeavors and keep ourselves open to hearing and processing feedback that may be contrary to our beliefs?

Are You Green & Growing?

The further along, we get in our careers, the more we know and the more we are challenged to stay curious.

Every now and then, I meet a leader that knows it all. They have “the way” they do things that worked for them in the past, and as leaders, they are confident it will work today.

They share “the way” with their team, expecting them to accept “the way” and to become successful because of it. They do this with the best intentions, yet the results don’t come. Frustrated, they try again. If only folks would simply execute “the way,” they will be successful, and so will our company.

Alas, they discover, it doesn’t work the way it once did. This leader has two choices, s/he can continue to lead as s/he has always done, or… s/he can become curious.

What I have noticed is businesses, like ourselves, are living beings. And, like a plant, if I am not willing and able to be green and growing, the result is that I and my company become ripe and eventually rotting.

Go Ahead, Drop Some Balls

A friend of mine recently received a significant promotion. While he is excited about his promotion, he is searching for his replacement and, for now, is doing both jobs. When I asked him how it was going, he responded, “just trying to get it all done, without dropping any balls.”

This conversation reminded me of one I had with one of my clients. She was lamenting the challenges one of her executives has with burnout. In this case, the CEO said, “I wish he would learn to drop some balls; his effort to get everything done is what is causing his burnout!”

The’ to-do list’ can seem endless for those who want to dot every I and cross every T (I admit I am one of them). What I heard this wise CEO saying was, “go ahead, drop some balls,” just choose the ones you are going to drop.

What if, instead of starting each day with a list of what we are going to do, we begin by removing the things we aren’t going to do. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • What if you reviewed email once or twice per day and let everyone know this is your plan?
  • What if you coded your email so that critical emails moved to a priority list, and you responded to these first and removed yourself from cc lists?
  • What if for everything that comes your way, you paused and asked yourself, does this email, call, text, inquiry even require a response? And if it does, is this something only I can do? Or can I delegate it?
  • What if you paused before saying “yes”?

Better, Better, Maybe Not?

The notion that we can constantly make ourselves and our companies better, in theory, is a great idea. But when does it become too much?

For me, the best way to answer this question is to notice our strengths and work to enhance them. As an executive life coach, I refer to this as discovering and working in our genius.

Sometimes we become so focused on achieving that we cannot appreciate who we are or what we have already accomplished. When we are constantly reaching, it’s a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. 

What? Wasn’t I just quoting Florence Nightingale a few weeks ago, who said discontent leads to innovation? Yup. It is indeed a delicate balance, isn’t it?

For me, the subtle difference between striving to make the world a better place and pausing to celebrate accomplishment comes with self-awareness. The stoics said it well. We must be careful not to become reactionary or to accept, without question, the status quo. We must know ourselves, know our geniuses, and recognize where and when we can make a difference and where and when we cannot.  

Once we understand and act within our genius consistently, we become more effective, more satisfied, and ultimately better leaders. 

What Is Weakness?

Last week I wrote a blog entitled “What is Vulnerability,” in which I made an effort to describe the difference between showing vulnerability and showing weakness.

A couple of readers wrote in taking issue with my description of showing weakness. 

Here is what they wrote: 

“I’m going to send this to my client who struggles with vulnerability. I would suggest something, though. Your definition of weakness – leaders often don’t know what to do and are uncertain. I tell people they don’t need to know all the answers, and it’s OK to be uncertain. They can name that and ask the group.”

“I want to argue again. The definition of weak is as bad as the prohibition of vulnerability. Weak = uncertain!!!!! Really. Where does that take leaders? They get paid to be uncertain and lead. So everyone has to pretend to be certain. I don’t know what to do, but here’s what we choose to do, is what leaders get paid for. Easy when you “know what to do!”

Receiving both of these comments from fellow coaches who I respect, caused me to pause. The second one came from Rick Eigenbrod, who has been both an inspiration and mentor to me. I responded and asked him to say more which led to a conversation and the following insights.

If, at the most basic level, the definition of a leader is they have followers, then what must a leader do to strengthen, rather than weaken, their bond with their followers?

In the military, where the chain of command is strict, it might seem that it’s the structure that defines who is a follower and who is a leader. Yet we know that followers will disobey, mutiny, etc., when their leader appears weak even in a rigid system.

So, what is weakness?

Here’s where Rick and I landed on this topic:

  • Leaders must take a stand. 
  • While leaders may be uncertain about the outcome, they must be certain about their choice, i.e., give their followers something to follow. “Tell me which hill to take,” as a client of mine used to say. 
  • Weakness is the inability to find a platform upon which to take a stand.
  • Weak is being afraid to take a stand, vulnerable is acknowledging the outcome may be uncertain, our choices may all be risky, and we are moving forward with this one because…


What Is Vulnerability?

I find that the topic of vulnerability comes up frequently in discussions amongst leaders with varying descriptions of what it means to “show vulnerability.”

Here are some questions to expand the dialogue:

  • Does vulnerability have to mean showing emotion?
  • It’s OK for a woman to have tears and talk about feelings, but still not OK for men?
  • What’s the difference between showing vulnerability and showing weakness?
  • How do we, as leaders, coach the leaders we work with on how to show up both confident and vulnerable?

And here are some stories from leaders I’ve worked with:

“I was a relatively new leader of a high growth business. We missed our numbers one year, and up in the front of the room, I teared up when I shared the news with my team. I felt shame that I didn’t control my emotions. Yet, the team rallied, each leader coming up to me to commit to what they would do to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

“First at age 18, and then at age 22, I entered the two most emotionless organizations there are, West Point at age 18 and Marines at age 22. In some way, these experiences hardened me to outward emotional signs. Then as a small unit infantry combat commander in Vietnam, we had to suppress and not show any emotions despite what we may have felt inside. To show emotions to the 18 & 19-year-old Marines that we led wasn’t viewed as something commanders did, and we worried that emotions might enter into the brutal things we had to do in the infantry. In our generation, it wasn’t considered ‘Marine like’ to show emotion—which of course led many of us to suppress PTSD feelings.”

“I have been working on culture in my company. Frustrated with the lack of progress, I stood up in front of the entire leadership team, all levels, and told my personal story, my values, my expectations of myself as a leader. Wow, what an impact it had; people began to ‘get it.’ And yet, I discovered that my two senior leaders, both women, struggled with this. They said they work hard to be “professional,” and to them showing or talking about feelings was weak and unprofessional.”

For all leaders, it is important to have followers trust our message. As such, there is a fine line between appearing vulnerable yet confident and appearing weak. These stories speak to different ways to address this challenge.

For me, it’s something like this,

  • Vulnerable is I am human. I make mistakes, admit them, learn from them, and move on.
  • Weak is I am uncertain. I don’t trust myself, I don’t know what to do.


What is Your Team’s Us of Identity?

In a recent conversation with a friend, he shared his experience as a member of two different peer advisor business groups.

My friend was saying that the second group seemed to lack the intimacy of the first. When we dug deeper and explored the differences between the two, here is what we uncovered.

The first group had been together for a long time and was homogenous. The members were all male, all from the same socio-economic class, and all about the same age. On the other hand, the second group was diverse with gender, race, ethnicity, background, economic class, and other differences.

In a previous blog on this topic, With Diversity Comes Diversity, I share my experience in building diverse teams. What is missing in this previous story are the questions my friend raised, “What was different about the second group? Why didn’t it have the same level of intimacy as the first?”

I believe Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gave us the answer in his Ted Talk entitled How we can face the future without fear, together. Rabbi Sacks talks about what he calls “the us of identity.” Comparing the monuments of the United States and Britain, he points out that in the United States, we “read” memorials, e.g., the Martin Luther King Memorial has more than a dozen quotes from his speeches. In London, the monuments contain only the names of their famous leaders.

Why the difference? According to Sacks, the difference is because America was from the outset a nation of wave after wave of immigrants. Hence, it had to create an identity by telling a story that we learned in school, read on memorials, and heard repeated in presidential inaugural addresses. Britain, until recently, wasn’t a nation of immigrants, so it could take its identity for granted.

The two groups my friend experienced typify the groups described in With Diversity Comes Diversity. Group One had similar backgrounds, which led to shared interests, and they often agreed on topics; they had an us of identity. Contrast this with Group Two, a diverse group with little, if any, natural common ground, lacking an us of identity.

Intimacy and a feeling of shared destiny, i.e., an us of identity, are essential for building trust and ultimately effectiveness in any group, a business peer group, or a team within a company or a country, in Sack’s opinion.

Research shows that diverse points of view deliver better decisions, and yet, homogeneity is comfortable, easy, and therefore compelling for a leader.

Does this mean we either settle for lower quality decisions, i.e., homogeneity, or get better decisions and have to settle for lower trust?

Is it possible to create intimacy in a diverse group?

I believe the answer to the first question is a resounding no and the answer to the second question is yes. And, the leader of a diverse group must do the hard work. S/he must weave a common story, an us of identity, that team members can rally around. This us identity then becomes the shared destiny that leads to trust and intimacy.

When the leader intentionally creates a diverse team AND weaves a common story, the resulting group will consistently outperform the homogeneous one.

NOTE: I am taking a sabbatical for the month of April. I will be back in early May with my usual Sunday Stories.