The Power of Assumptions

The Power of Assumptions

The Brain’s Number One Shortcut Tool

By Scott Eck and Jim Deken

Generally speaking, human beings have aversions both to change and to uncertainty.  We want to feel “in control” and to be able to predict effectively what’s going to happen next.  The brain and the ego work together routinely to satisfy these desires. But when massive change and uncertainty are present, the brain’s number one shortcut tool, assumptions, shifts into overdrive.

As we encounter each person or situation throughout the day, the brain presents us with the details, emotions, and outcomes of prior dealings with these same (or similar) individuals or circumstances.  The ego then kicks in, assuring us that these suppositions are all we need to predict with confidence the best way to conduct ourselves in order to optimize our personal outcome.

The result of this process is that we tend to presume that previous experiences will inevitably be repeated.  We take it “for granted” that the present scenario will play out according to the model that the brain and the ego have constructed, and we decide to behave accordingly.  We tell ourselves things like, “This guy was in the military, so he’s bossy and opinionated, which means I’ll have to ______________”, or “These meetings are always boring, so I’ll just ________________”.  These suppositions, the things we take for granted, are called assumptions.

It’s entirely possible (and quite common) to have both positive and negative assumptions about a person or situation.  The balance (or lack of it) between these sets of assumptions is what frequently influences not only our decisions about the behaviors we will exhibit during the encounter, but also the success or failure of the interaction itself.

Know this:  you will always have assumptions – you must decide to control them or they will control you.

While it’s true that assumptions play a valuable and necessary role in your life (as do most of the brain’s strategies), they can cause problems if not properly guided by your intellect and regulated by your will.  Consider that, absent such guidance and regulation, blindly following your assumptions could:

  • lead you to trust someone who is trying to manipulate you;
  • cause you to overlook an individual with a valuable contribution to make; or
  • result in your mistrusting a person who actually shares your goals.

When you allow your experience-based assumptions to shape your approach to another person or to a situation, you risk missing an important opportunity.  Often, you won’t allow yourself to seek ways to make a positive relationship even stronger, nor will you consider how you might make a negative relationship better (or, at the very least, keep it from getting any worse).  Oftentimes, the past is not always a good predictor of the future, especially when the future is full of uncertainty and fear.

For example, an individual who proved challenging in your earlier interaction(s) may simply have been having a “bad day” or may have been dealing with work pressures, serious illness, personal issues, or family matters about which you know nothing.  In addition, the timing and/or location of the interaction may have presented an insurmountable distraction.  Any of those (and any number of other conditions) can easily inhibit people (yourself included) from being at their best.

In short, while assumptions can be helpful in minimizing uncertainty, they can cause problems when you rely on them disproportionately. Knowing how assumptions are formed and recognizing some of the ways they can affect your efforts to build a high-status environment for yourself and those around you is a good start, but now it’s time to take action.  Part of any good leadership development trajectory involves being introduced to (or reminded of) techniques for identifying and managing assumptions. The overarching concept is to train both your brain and your ego to prioritize your assumptions properly, giving them neither more nor less weight than they deserve.

You will want to form the habit of reviewing and evaluating your assumptions regarding specific individuals and/or situations on a regular basis.  The best time to do this is before you encounter the person or enter the situation.  Once the interaction has started, the clock is ticking, and it’s too late for reflection.  Has the environment changed from the previous instance?  Is the person in a different job with different pressures and demands?  What other factors may be different this time than in your prior experience? Before entering into any human transaction, it’s essential to check in with yourself first, to see which of your assumptions are in play. Armed with this critical self-awareness, you can then begin the process of managing such assumptions, before they start to manage you.

Another important thing to keep in mind prior to entering into any human transaction is that assumptions work both ways.  What are the other person’s apparent or likely assumptions about you?  Were you “at your best” last time out?  If not, why not? Awareness of how assumptions work in others is equally critical to managing your own. Having awareness of all possible assumptions means that you will become more effective in influencing the energy of any human exchange.

Like any other improvement we make in our lives, becoming aware of how assumptions work in ourselves, and in others, will require effort and commitment.  Effort to begin this critical self-awareness project, and the commitment to repeat it before entering into any human transaction. As you begin to see the results, you’ll know it was well worth investing both.

Scott Eck, Jim Deken  May 2018

The Virtual Storyteller

Recently my organization was in Africa presenting “The Mandela Architecture” to the Open Society Foundation. After the presentation, a gentleman approached my team and thanked us for delivering such a moving and inspiring program. He went on to inform us that he had traveled to China with Nelson Mandela in 1999, assisting the South African leader with his scheduled meetings with president Jiang Zemin and premier Zhu Rongji in Beijing. He told us that on the morning of the very first meeting with President Zemin, the Chinese leader barely greeted Mandela, looking decidedly unhappy and behaving somewhat less than gracious. When Mandela inquired as to the cause of President Zemin’s displeasure, the Chinese leader did not respond. At that moment, an aide approached Mandela, and whispered something in the South African leader’s ear. Mandela quickly rose from his seat, excused himself, and left the room. When he returned ten minutes later, he was greeted with smiles and warmth from the Chinese president, and the meeting proceeded in glorious international friendship.

So…what happened? Why was the Chinese leader initially so upset?

Mandela had made his own bed.

A tradition from childhood, no matter where he stayed – hotel, guest house, prison or palace, Nelson Mandela always, always, made his own bed. Unaware of Chinese cultural customs, he had no idea that he was insulting his host by doing so. And so, in order to right this cultural wrong, the South African leader immediately returned to his room, messed up the bed, wrinkled a pillow-case or two, and rejoined his host.

Quick, pleasant little story, right? Limited value, limited consequences, firestorm averted. Except that if we look a little deeper into the story, if we become virtual storytellers and expand that moment in time into three dimensions, we can see the value that Nelson Mandela placed upon the nuances of other cultures. Understanding immediately that his Chinese host placed massive importance on caring for important guests, Mandela took immediate, massive action HIMSELF, by returning to his room and deconstructing his bed. That seemingly unimportant action is what paved the way for diplomacy between the two nations.

When executives and managers can expand the dimensions of the stories they tell, if they can become virtual storytellers, they draw the listener into both the nuances of the story and the actions required by the situation contained within the story. This is a technique that Leadership Masters has employed, and taught, for over thirty years. The art of virtual storytelling.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful drivers of legacy within the human experience. If we can learn to expand and deepen the boundaries of our storytelling, as the man from Open Society shows us, if we can teach ourselves to become virtual storytellers, we can then leverage the imaginations and emotions of the listener, teach deep and valuable lessons, and change the world, one human story at a time.


The Echo Chamber Solution

by Scott Eck

Ever since the treatise entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” was published, our phones have not stopped ringing. And once Google’s response was made public, things got even busier in the various Leadership Masters offices. For this reason, I thought it best to put something out there both for the benefit of our current clients and for that of our future ones.

The question of moral, philosophical, and political biases raised by the Google employee was a sound one. The practices of separation, polarization, and aggression that are prevalent in today’s global cultures are penetrating even the most self-sustaining, self-correcting, high-status work environments.  However, his assumptions and subsequent conclusions regarding the status drivers of both men and women in technology-based industries was, in my view, way off the mark.

Currently, Google is not a client of my organization, Leadership Masters. But based on the high-status environmental work that we have done on behalf of such IT leaders as GE, Boeing, IBM, Booz-Allen, 3M, Dell, Lockheed-Martin, and others, I can say with confidence that the existence of ‘Ideological Echo Chambers’ are normally the organic result of an organization’s efforts to create a high-status work environment for all stakeholders, regardless of orientation or gender. The employee who discussed his perceptions of the current bias bubbles in Google’s Mountain View Campus was, essentially, assigning low status to his organization’s efforts to build a culturally diverse, high-status environment. It was this low-status assignment, combined with a low-status assumption regarding women in his chosen industry, that was likely a strong contributing factor in his dismissal.

Indeed, it was the very dismissal of the Google employee that generated the most ‘buzz’ around our various offices. Some of our clients wondered if the dismissal represented a zero-tolerance ‘correction’ by Google, some asked if the dismissal represented reaction and retaliation.  Since Google is not one of our clients, we could not supply a definitive response. What we did reinforce, however, in each of those calls and e-mails, is that rapid growth can only occur when all parties involved in any human transaction are operating on an equal, high-status basis. (Status Solution Rule #4) And since Google’s rapid growth and success cannot be questioned, we can assume that there is a self-building, self-sustaining, self-correcting, high-status environment in place. It may not be a perfect environment (we have yet to find an absolutely PERFECT work environment), yet clearly there are strategies in place to build a culturally diverse, psychologically safe, high-status energy across Google’s various locations.

One of the great leadership challenges of our time will be to develop strategies for building environments where equal, HIGH status is assigned and shared, consistently, by all individuals and all groups, no matter where they appear on the org chart, no matter what gender or orientation, and no matter what socio-political negative energy is penetrating consciousness or sub-consciousness. This is becoming a particularly daunting task, since we seem to be dividing and sub-dividing into more and more enclaves or ‘camps’ on a daily basis. To counteract such separation, we must remember that camp mentality is a low-status ENERGY; an energy that must be gauged and then met with the corrective energy contained within an equal, high-status environment. Such high-status energy will allow for the expression of differing and diverse opinions, and the freedom to question both the practices and philosophy of any organization, without the fear of reprisal or retaliation. Leadership Masters is committed to helping to create culturally diverse, self-sustaining, high-status environments for both organizations and governments around the world. Such environments are critical for rapid growth, critical for both individual and group creativity and achievement, and critical for fostering diverse and empowered cultures.

Workplace Certainty in a World of Fear

In 2012 Leadership Masters was contacted by a prestigious Fortune 50 organization with over 20,000 employees worldwide. When we inquired into the issue or challenge that they wished to address, they admitted: “We’re a company whose hallmark is innovation…yet we have somehow become risk averse. We haven’t created anything new…no new products, no new anything… in over ten years.”

The first thing we did was acknowledge their honesty. The second thing we did was ask questions. The first was: “When EXACTLY did you create and roll out your last new product?” The answer: “Q1-Q3, 2001”. Our second question was: “So nothing at all after 9/11?” The client’s entire team sat back in stunned silence. We said: “Don’t worry…you’re not alone.”

Ever since the word “terrorism” became part of the world’s daily lexicon, we have been charting the unmistakable trend, in organizations both large and small, toward creating more and more certainty in the workplace. Org charts have become more rigid, processes and operations more airtight, meetings and communications more frequent. Security measures have increased, name badges have become mandatory, e-mail traffic is monitored, and emergency procedures are rehearsed. The intent is both positive and pure: make our employees, our customers, our communities, feel SAFE. In times of great uncertainty, it is the responsibility of leadership to provide a voice of certainty. Conversely, in times of great certainty, it is the responsibility of leadership to provide a voice of uncertainty, so that innovation can flourish.

But as we have seen by the recent attacks in Northern England, Lahore in Pakistan, Bastia in France, and other smaller cities, terrorism has now become more local, more frequent, and more unpredictable. And as the level of uncertainty rises due to the attacks in these more remote communities, the level of human fear will rise to meet it. Much as water seeks its’ own level, so does human fear when it comes to uncertainty.

The danger for leadership is the natural impulse to meet the high level of external fear with an equal or higher lever of internal certainty. In other words, as the sociological environment seems increasingly out of control, leaders may very well try to blanket their work environment with more and more internal control. Of course, the more rules and controls that exist within an organization, the less room there will be to innovate. Such was the case with our new client. In ten years time, their cultural energy had changed from a campus without walls to one of total and impenetrable lockdown. Once the energy shifted to lockdown, they began losing talent, innovation ceased, and the fight to maintain their position in the industry began.

In the last two years, we have seen more senior leaders and HR specialists resigning their positions than we have in the last ten years combined. When we ask why, the answer is nearly always the same: “Too many rules, too much control…no room to create”. In response, leadership development specialists are doing their best to design immersion programs and experiential seminars to help leaders feel the difference in energy between an environment that is safe and controlled, versus an environment that is safe and innovative, and how to create and sustain that energy as uncertainty and fear increase. It has been an uphill battle, because as a news and information culture, we seem to find new ways of ratcheting up the fear almost every day.

The good news is that the leadership development community is fully aware of this phenomenon, and this trend, and they are taking massive action to address it. As for our new client, it took four years to educate all three thousand senior leaders in the behaviors, techniques, and processes of a cultural SHIFT. (They didn’t need a change, they just needed a shift). Today, they are back on top of their industry. They are more creative than ever, and they are retaining and attracting talent. We take no credit in their turnaround. Instead, we applaud this organization, and all organizations, who have the capacity to be self aware, honest, and pro-active in balancing certainty and uncertainty, in a world of fear.

(If you are interested in an interactive, immersion experience that helps executive and high-potential students balance the energies of certainty and uncertainty, visit

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Transforming Polarized Cultures

Liberal vs. conservative, labor vs. management, smoker vs. non-smoker, i-phone vs. android, vegan vs. non-vegan, gas vs. hybrid, and the list goes on. Although I long for the simpler, bygone days of ‘paper or plastic’, I cannot escape the fact that western culture, in 2017, seems to be pushing us, all of us, into separate and, often, opposing “camps”. The resulting ‘camp mentality’ always comes with a belief system that includes accusatory finger-pointing toward the opposing camp, and vice versa. The goal is to lower the status of the opposing camp, thereby raising the status of the host camp, which always perceives that it owns more of the truth and is therefore entitled to the higher status.

This is, of course, a fallacy. According to the unbreakable, non-negotiable rules of status, whenever you lower someone else’s status, you lower your own. That is rule number one. And whenever there is a disparity of status assignments, no growth is possible. That is rule number two. Yet when growth is sluggish in any organization or country, the camps form, the fingers are pointed, and growth slows even further as the disparity in status widens. The front-liners accuse the executives, the executives accuse the front-liners, and growth becomes impossible. The culture becomes weaker as the camps become stronger. This is the type of environment that only effective leadership, at all levels, can correct.

One of the heaviest burdens of leadership in 2017 and beyond will be finding ways to create environments where equal, HIGH status is assigned and shared, consistently, by ALL groups, no matter where they fall on the org chart, no matter where they exist on the sociological ladder. This will be challenging at best, since we seem to be dividing and sub-dividing into more and more camps on a daily, and sometimes, hourly, basis. Leadership Masters is addressing this issue with all of our clients, in all sectors, from Coca-Cola and General Mills in the Food and Beverage Industry, to Boeing and Lockheed Martin in Defense Technology, to Booz Allen and UBS in the Financial Sector, to GE and 3M in Manufacturing, to Novo Nordisk and AstraZeneca in Pharma. We are creating programs that address the critical issue of environmental high status, and how to build such environments. With programs such as “The Mandela Architecture”, “The Churchill Chronicles”, “Limitless Possibilities” and “Open Challenges in Closed Systems”, we are meeting our clients’ needs to meet the challenge of polarized, camp cultures, and we do not take this responsibility lightly.

As modern training platforms move toward on-line courses and electronic case studies, it is important to remember that camp mentality is an ENERGY; an energy that must be gauged and then met with the energy of equal, high status. Authority figures rarely provide such energy. Authority figures thrive on camp mentality and the divisive energy that such environments create. Therefore, it is logical to assume that the more camps we create, the more authority figures we will see springing up to lead them. This will only add to the burden of leadership in 2017 and beyond. Not only will inspiring and effective leaders be met with the challenge of polarized environments, they will also have to manage the authority figures that grow from within them. Leadership Masters is watching this trend and possible phenomenon closely, and we are here to help.

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The Power of Emotion in Action Learning

When prospective clients call our offices in either the U.S. or the UK and ask how we are able to achieve such extraordinary results, our response is always the same: it’s our construct – we engage executive and high-potential students emotionally first, then psychologically, then finally we ask them to process everything they have experienced intellectually. Some callers are absolutely shocked and appalled. “What do you mean you engage them EMOTIONALLY?” “Well”, we reply, “they’ve already got their emotions with them, so we figure we might as well use them.” Sometimes “click” is the next sound we hear. But more often than not, people want to learn more. And that is the key idea: learning MORE.

Scientists have proven that emotionally engaging, experiential learning results in specific, positive action states, as well as more accurate mental maps of the world. That is why Leadership Masters uses “learning blocks”, brief mapping sessions in-between our acclaimed leadership theater scenes and our real-time role-play scenarios. These learning blocks leverage such ‘action states’, inspiring student participants to map out not only the short and long-term strategies for their specific work groups, but also the leadership behaviors that will be required to drive change.

Of course, it’s how you engage the emotional lives of successful and influential people that makes all the difference. Leadership Masters uses powerful, inspiring examples of documented leaders who faced monumental challenges, and the transformational strategies they employed to bring about both personal and institutional change. The writing is always sophisticated, insightful and challenging, the acting is brilliant, and the learning blocks are custom-fitted to the outcomes specified by our clients. We then add soaring music and moving images to the mix, and the result is a sustained state of inspiration, the kind that helps people move mountains, including the mountain of self.

Friedrick Nietzsche once said: “Of all the vast mines of treasure, the treasure of the self is always the last to be discovered”. Leadership Masters helps powerful and successful people mine the treasures of the self, including the very emotional and inspiring decision of leadership. And yes, great leadership requires an emotional and inspirational decision to lead and to lead well. We hope you’re not too shocked and appalled.


What is Leadership Theater?

Leadership Theater, and the ‘psycho-dramatic effect’, was pioneered by renowned psychologist Dr. Jacob Moreno, a student of Dr. Sigmund Freud. Dr. Moreno determined that theater produces a profound, three-dimensional impact upon human beings that anchors behaviors far deeper than one-dimensional, intellectual learning. Dr. Moreno also determined that when the audience participates in the theatrical event, the learning becomes even more deeply anchored, and inspires audience members to create powerful, sustainable changes, both in themselves and in their environments.

Leadership Masters first harnessed the power of Leadership Theater in 2004 with the creation of “The Shackleton Experience”. Set as a 1921 press conference, audience members portray the international journalists who ask the questions of the heroic polar explorer. In “The Churchill Chronicles”, audience members portray various cabinet members of the British government during the early 1940’s, and in “The Mandela Architecture”, audience members take on different roles in each and every scene. The result is total immersion into the world of various extraordinary leaders, and the strategies and behaviors that made them great.

The elements of truly inspiring Leadership Theater are brilliant writing, equally brilliant acting, music, visual elements, and learning ‘blocks’. The learning blocks are breaks between the theatrical scenes, where audience students translate what they are experiencing on an emotional level into practical strategies for sustainable change. According to Dr. Randy Petzel of the US Government “This is the most powerful learning that I have seen in over twenty years”. And according to Kevin Wilde, CLO of General Mills: “It has been over three years, but not a week goes by where someone doesn’t stop me in the hallway and thank me for bringing ‘Shackleton’ to General Mills. Three years later, and they’re still talking about it.”

As the learning pendulum swings more toward virtual platforms and e-learning, Leadership Theater can create the necessary balance needed for high-impact experiential learning and human behavioral change. Tactics and strategies in business operations transfer easily to virtual platforms, but the business of developing people and creating inspiring and innovative environments is best suited to experiential learning. And experiential learning is at its most powerful when it takes the form of leadership theater.

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Shackleton’s Leadership, One Century Later

The recent article posted in the Training Journal speaks to Ernest Shackleton’s continued staying power as a leader that many of us can, and probably should, emulate and model. ( During his Endurance expedition of 1914-1916, Shackleton and his crew of 27 were stranded on an ice flow following the loss of their ship to the pack ice of the Antarctic. “The Boss”, as he was fondly called, immediately reorganized his team’s resources, set new goals, and clearly articulated a strategy for achieving those goals. Part of that strategy was creating an environment of shared decision-making, and inspiring his team to be creative and fearless in their problem-solving. Because the environmental conditions and the level of pressure was constantly changing, Shackleton himself remained flexible and optimistic, and encouraged his team to do the same. He celebrated achievement daily, and challenged his team to push themselves to even greater heights despite increasing odds and relentless pressure. By the time he and his team returned safely home, Shackleton and his team “had touched the soul of man”. Shackleton’s extraordinary yet humble leadership style enabled him to navigate safely through the most hostile of environments and through impossible odds. His philosophy of shared, equal high status for all galvanized his team and bonded them in such a way that when Shackleton announced his intended return to the Antarctic in 1921, nearly every member of his team volunteered to go. The story of Shackleton’s bold, transformational leadership is told in a remarkable leadership presentation called “The Shackleton Experience” (, where executive and high-potential students can model for themselves the competencies and strategies that made Sir Ernest Shackleton a timeless leader, and an inspiring figure, one hundred years following the moment that defined him.BP_ip_038

Team Dynamics Across Cultures

As organizational teams become more horizontal; crossing oceans, cultures, functions, and demographics, team leaders are required to be sensitive to the tensions, fears, and separations that cause breakdowns in team dynamics and performance. This can be a challenging task when such teams meet via the internet or teleconference, as the leader’s ability to “read” his or her people becomes limited by the technology in play. There are, of course, unspoken and unwritten rules governing how such teams are expected to interact: courtesy for all and professionalism ad nauseum, yet there will still exist unspoken and unwritten fears and doubts within the individual team members regarding their place on the team, the team itself, and the seemingly impossible expectations. So how do team leaders gain insight into such individual doubts, fears, and, often, a lack of trust in the team’s purpose or even in the team leader? Currently, the answer to that question seems to take the form of more regular electronic communication: e-mails and instant messaging, inquiring into the team members’ questions or concerns. But in a virtual environment, team members are less likely to be forthcoming with questions or concerns due to the crippling fear that such truthful admissions will effectively lower their status on the team. They will, understandably, suppress such doubts and plow ahead, in order to be seen as aggressive team players with an eye on the prize. But in informal settings, away from their desks, such team members will often voice those questions and concerns to anyone who will listen, in order to validate their own views and to steel themselves for the dropping of the other shoe. Such covert breaks in faith and trust are nearly impossible for a team leader to gauge, unless he or she has a good understanding of what the doubts and fears will be in the first place, and is the first to give voice to them. Effective leaders, in both actual and virtual environments, are the first to say: “This is our objective, and these are my fears and doubts – what are yours?” Putting the doubts and fears on the same level as the objective itself opens the lanes of honest communication and gives each team member an avenue of trust to navigate, rather than the dark alleys of doubt and fear, littered with all the other shoes that have dropped along the way.

Diversity & Governance Slide

This new offering from Leadership Masters helps executive students and managers understand how unconscious bias is created in the workplace, and how to eliminate it from the working culture