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The Most Dangerous Leadership Style

The most dangerous leadership style is assumptive leadership. An assumption is something you accept as true or certain. For example, when I was a principal and my teachers were not at their doors at 7:30 greeting students my assumption was they were either late to work or chose not to follow our agreed upon expectations. 

The problem was, rather than walk to the classroom to understand what the reality was and check on the teacher and seek to understand, I would  hold onto it, allowing the feeling of resentment become more entrenched. 

I know how wrong my assumptions usually are. The key is that it’s just a story I’m making up. Often, the other person isn’t even aware I’m holding on to an assumption.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you led by assumptions in the past? 

I have learned that in the absence of information, we assume the worst. As a result, create a fictional divide between people that can dismantle working relationships. 

I have found that the best way to eliminate your assumptive leadership style is to completely clear your assumptions out of the way. Take action which will cause the story you’re telling yourself to shift. Here are three strategies that have helped me reduce my assumptive leadership style. 

The first strategy is to ensure I have set and very clearly communicated agreed upon expectations as a team or organization. As a result, I can clear up assumptions by approaching the conversation with the person with extreme curiosity and turn the assumption into an observation. It goes something like this. “Morning Tom, I wanted to check on you because we had all agreed as a staff that we would be at our doors greeting students at 7:30 each morning to build relationships and ensure student safety. However, when I walked by your classroom you were not there. Can you help me understand where you were?”

This provides Tom, in this case, the opportunity to own their not being there or seek clarification on the expectation. Either way, you can now let go of the assumption and communicate the expectations and coach the person to a successful outcome. And yes, you can let go of this assumption and you no longer need to leak energy thinking about Tom and him not being at his morning post. It can be that simple. If you do not have agreed upon, written down and clearly communicated expectations, this accountability conversation does not hold weight. So start there. 

Now, I know what you are thinking. What if Tom is late again. Well, the second strategy is one taught to me by leadership expert John Maxwell has taught me. John states that in order to truly lead someone you must first declare noble intent. You must see everyone, communicate to everyone, as though they have a perfect 10 stamped on their head. Now, the only person who can lower that number, Tom in this case, is them. Through their behaviors, their proven actions. Not assumed actions. So you need to decide at what point is their number so low despite all of the conversations and coaching can I continue to have them on our team. Remember, leadership is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of those you are in charge of. So if you make bad hiring decisions, character wise, be sure to learn from them. Focus your hiring processes on character rather than competence and certifications only. 

Finally, lead by asking questions. By asking questions and listening carefully to the answers, we can discover valuable perspectives other than our own. That’s valuable because we often make faulty assumptions about other people.

We believe people are good at the same things we are good are - they aren’t.

As a leader, it is critical to know each of your team members strengths and growth points. Too many times we put team members in positions which do not match their skillset. We must release our team members from their weaknesses! Our role as leaders is to develop our team, help them develop their strengths into organizational assets. So instead of relying on policy manuals and procedures to “develop” people, ask questions and find out where it is they see themselves in three to five years and assist them in carrying out that vision. 

We believe they are energized by the same things that energize us - they aren’t.

When I was a principal I would spend countless hours researching and reading articles on school leadership, school improvement and… I would be very excited to share them with my team. I would concoct a beautiful email filled with links and ideas, then be disappointed when the ideas were not implemented, or sometimes the email was never opened. In order for you to energize your team, you need to know what they need. What makes them laugh, cry and sing. You can only achieve this by asking questions and getting insatiably curious. 

We believe people see the big picture in the same way we do –they don’t.

Teachers see the school between the four walls of their classroom. Parents see the school from the perspective of their child. Board members see the school based on the information the principal provides and the whispers they hear outside of the meeting. Don’t assume they understand or will work to understand your picture. If you want them to see the picture, paint the picture with them inside of it. Communicate to them how you see them being a big part of the school’s future based on their strengths and interests. How their work will be so critical to the future of the school and how valued they are. 

Humans, are assumption machines. This is what we do. The problem is assumptions will dampen the strength of your leadership and relationships. Identify assumptions when they emerge and shovel the piles when they are small. I have found the longer you wait to address them, the bigger the problem gets and the worse the result. You’ll find it much easier to operate and lead based on agreed upon values and the facts.

This blog was written by Dr. Tom Miller, human behavior consultant and owner of Leaders Building Leaders. The fastest growing leadership development company in North Carolina. If this blog added value to you please share with someone who needs to hear the message and apply the strategies.

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