Sandra Sieb

The Lab: 'Are our assumptions about top Leadership roles holding us back?' Posts from The Lab

A couple weeks ago, Leadership Partners held its second Lab event. In a continuation of our first conversation, the community of inquiry set out to explore the assumptions we hold about top Leadership roles – and crucially, to ask whether they’re helping or hindering our careers.

For instance, if you believe that top leaders need to be charismatic and you see yourself as an introvert, you might struggle to envision yourself as a top leader. a result you may very likely make career decisions that avoid the leadership path. There’s nothing wrong with this approach if you’re genuinely not interested in a leadership role, but if – deep down inside – you aspire to lead, then it’s well worth having a conversation about your assumptions at this point!

We started our conversation by attempting to agree on a common definition of assumption, which turned out to be surprisingly easy – given we were 30+, I thought we’d struggle a bit more! Assumptions, we agreed, are those things we accept without proof; for instance, if we assume a film is good simply because it’s popular.

The obvious point here is that our assumptions might be wrong; the fact a film is ranked #1 is no guarantee that it’s in any way, shape or form a good film! And our assumptions are likely to be even more off the mark if they come from inferences that our brain makes when it doesn’t have all the necessary information. The other night, I gave the example of a client of mine who’d worked really hard to prepare for a presentation, but during the presentation he noticed that his boss looked quite annoyed and inferred from this that he was doing a crappy job at presenting. From this moment on, things went pear-shaped and the presentation ended up being a real disaster. As it turned out, his boss’s face had nothing to do with his presentation at all! She was actually preoccupied with a personal call that she’d just received – her kids were stuck on the motorway in a broken down car with their nanny… But it was too late – the damage was done.

That’s a relatively simple example of how our misguided assumptions can impact negatively on us. But the reality is somewhat more complex! Every moment, we’re exposed to in many different shapes and forms – we receive cognitive, emotional and sensorial information simultaneously. At any moment in time, our brain is filtering all of this information and attempting to organise it according to our own individual pre-existing categories and patterns. And crucially, although our brain doesn’t in fact have all the information it needs to do this sorting exercice, it doesn’t hesitate to fill in the blanks to force this categorization. For example, my client had no idea what his boss’s facial expressions actually meant, but the closest association his brain could make was to reconcile it with its already existing narrative about him was not being good at public speaking! This happens constantly to all of us. Our brains are just wired that way – it’s basically a sense-making and pattern-recognition machine! 

So, what did we take away from this conversation about our assumptions?

  1. We’re all unique. As the intensity of the conversation demonstrated, our assumptions are highly individualized – we can’t go around ‘assuming’ that we all share the same ones!
  2. Our reality matters. Many of our assumptions about top leadership roles depend of the specific context we’re currently working in and the particular stage of the life we’re at. We might be able to envisage ourselves as leaders within some work contexts but not others, or at some stages of our lives but not others. A mum of young children mightn’t be able to see herself becoming the CEO of an organization, given the likely demands on her presence – but a few years later, once her children are a little older, she might feel very differently. (And of course, the assumption that a CEO position necessarily demands presence in the first place is an assumption that could be challenged!)
  3. We’ve debated extensively the famous question of whether leaders are made or born. We agreed in the end that most often it’s a mixture of the two; no one’s really born a leader, but we can certainly be raised with some of the key values that promote leader-like behaviour, such as caring for others. But just as importantly, our experiences through life can contribute greatly to our capacity to lead. Indeed, we might become leaders despite our ‘family of origin’ context.
  4. We can evolve. We all seemed to agree that one of the most important qualities of a leader is having a growth mindset and a desire to learn. We even heard some personal stories of flourishing leaders who fell unwillingly into leadership roles! 

Our second Lab event was another great success and we’d like to thank you all for taking to time come. The energy of the group was vibrant and the passion in conversation almost palpable! Many participants commented on how nice it was that the conversation evolved from the initial gender-specific discussion we had in the first Lab event. 

For Tim and I, the night definitely confirmed the value of continuing to foster this community of inquiry – the exchange of perspectives and sharing of personal stories is invaluable to us, and we hope for each of you also. As one of the participants concluded: “It was refreshing to see other people grappling with the same challenges I have”.

So let’s keep thinking together…

The Lab is an invitation only event. If you want to join the conversation, drop us a line at [email protected]

Sandra Sieb is a leadership advisor and co-founder of Leadership Partners. More articles on adult development, complexity theory, leadership and system thinking can be found here

This blog is edited by Talia Gill, our brilliant communications specialist :-)


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