Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Limits of Assumptions

I once interviewed three historians who'd written biographies. My purpose was to learn about the management styles of their subjects, all of whom had been dictators or had exercised power akin to that level.

The first historian was marvelously informative. He tackled the subject from different angles and seemed to enjoy the less orthodox approach to his subject. He thought out loud about the ramifications of the person's style. I learned a great deal from him.

The second historian seemed surprised by the subject. He did not consider it irrelevant but it was clear that he had not delved into the details that heavily. He could discuss the general system in which the dictator had operated but not the specific approach of the leader.

The third historian was, in a way, the most memorable. He flatly rejected the suggestion that dictators had management styles because, at least in the case of his particular subject, he believed that all the man had to do was to issue orders and his associates would scurry to comply. I had ample evidence that such instant obedience was not quite the way that matters operated and that subordinates have their ways of working the boss, but he shut down any further exploration. He'd made up his mind.

His analysis has stayed with me as a warning of how our approaches can limit our perspective. Was I the captive of my approach and he the captive of his? In my defense, I can say that I reassessed my theories on the outside chance that the man might be right. He, on the other hand, refused to entertain the possibility that, amid all of the information he had acquired on his subject, he had not examined one aspect.

As the saying goes, we make our decisions and then they make us. In my life, some of the greatest advances have come when a long cherished assumption has been challenged and subsequently reinforced or replaced.

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