This is a excerpt from Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence. Copyright 2013 Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press.
Why Assumptions Matter
There are countless studies that show that what you think, believe, and focus on affects what you are able to achieve. Your assumptions – the ideas and beliefs you hold about yourself and your team, others and their teams, and the terrain and playing field you operate in – become self-fulfilling prophecies. They have a seismic effect on your leadership presence. Negative assumptions – that you do not have what it takes or that you are not senior enough to substantially contribute – can undermine your presence. Positive ones – that you were promoted for good reasons or that you add value to every conversation – make you more confident and bolster your presence.
Like most people, you likely never speak your assumptions out loud; you may not even be aware of their existence. Instead, assumptions stay beneath the surface, a powerful foundation to your every action.
Athletes are familiar with this strong link between thoughts and actions. Across different sports, from college basketball to pro tennis, athletes are regularly coached in how to make the most of their mind-set, to think about their game, their opponents, and what it will take to win. Consider Y.E. Yang, a young South Korean golfer who won his first championship in 2009. He was the first Asian-born player to capture the PGA championship title. Yang started the tournament 5 over par and had a two-shot deficit going into the final round. His final score was 13 under. He did all of this while paired with Tiger Woods, one of the most formidable playing partners and then king of golf. Woods had been 14-0 going into the final round. He had never lost a tournament on American soil when leading by more than one shot. And yet Yang took him down.
As we read the interviews with Yang in the days following the tournament, we were struck by how he articulated his attitude toward Woods. Yang recounted how he put the challenge into perspective, even days before the game: “It’s not like you’re in an octagon where you’re fighting against Tiger and he’s going to bite you, or swing at you with his 9-iron,” Yang said, speaking through an interpreter. “The worst that I could do was just lose to Tiger. So I really had nothing much at stake.”
It was this scrappy position that helped Yang to win. He could have just as easily choked under the pressure, ceding the title to Woods because he was the king of golf and Yang wasn’t. Instead, Yang refused to accept that assumption and decided he had nothing to lose by playing his best. His confidence, perspective, and clarity helped him to win despite the odds.
The great masters of sports not only have unbelievable skill and are in great physical condition, but they also have mental focus. They have cultivated a mind-set that allows them to overcome doubts, take risks, and put their best selves on the court, the field, or in the rink.
Similarly, examining your beliefs and choosing where to focus your mental energy is a fundamental step to attaining Signature Voice. You need to have your assumptions in check. You may be guided by beliefs that are outdated, inaccurate, left over from a previous role or experience, or simply dead wrong. In this case, your assumptions might be betraying, rather than supporting you. It’s not just about positive or negative thinking but about whether what you believe is in line with the reality of the situation.
This chapter addresses three of the most critical assumptions you need to pay attention to enhance your leadership presence:
• Confidence: What you bring to the table
• Perspective: What hat you wear
• Clarity: What your values are
These assumptions are especially critical when you’re taking on a larger role or increasing your visibility as a leader. The key is to recognize the assumption you are making, what quadrant you slide to as a result of that assumption, and then to reframe or reset the assumption so that you can get back to Signature Voice. You are going to have beliefs about yourself, those around you, and the situations you are in. You need to make the most of them while preventing them from eroding your presence.