Let's bypass assumption junction

15th December 2006 at 00:00
Is everything going well in your empire? Does everyone share your determination to see things improve? Do they spend as much time as you do thinking of what could be done better and more efficiently? Is your answer Yes to all of the above?

If so, welcome to assumption junction, a cosy place where the view outside the window is always restful and reassuring. There are many terrible stories to be told of what can happen if leaders move over to assumption junction.

Sir Winston Churchill was almost plunged into despair in February 1942 because he had wrongly assumed that Singapore was heavily fortified against the Japanese advance. He referred repeatedly, in a phrase that many knew to be a travesty, to Fortress Singapore. Then there was the man who built a fireplace in my home a few years ago. He almost lost his business because he assumed that the family members who worked for him would be honest and hard-working.

A headteacher in our county also had a year of angst and distress because of her predecessor's assumption that the long-serving secretary wasn't the kind of person who would steal the dinner money.

The error here is projecting your deeply held values on to individuals - some people will share them but others certainly will not. It happens all the time, and it's easy to see why.

A leader, almost by definition, is consumed by the needs of the organisation and by the drive to make it as good as it can be. Every day they come in filled with plans, eager to write memos and hold meetings.

It's easy to forget, or never fully realise, that not everyone in the workplace is like that. Some want to do the job and go home. Others don't even want to do the job - they'll go through the motions and keep out of the way.

The real skill of leadership, you might conclude, lies not in having visions and making speeches, but in knowing all of your people so well that even if you can't persuade them to share your strategic ideals, you can get them committed to their own bit of the mission. The orchestral conductor has a broad understanding of how the symphony should sound. And, of course, the second trombone wants to play their line of music as well as possible.

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