Issue 5.2 | June 2015

In this Article: how to unlearn the flawed assumptions that prevent us from transforming our world and ourselves.

by Jonathan Wilson

On a lonely mountain airstrip surrounded by rainforest, two foreign workers and their Yali tribal friend in possession of the wonderfully odd name, Fingernail, climbed into a small, single-engine propeller aircraft. The pilot gunned the engine until it sounded like an enormous and very angry bee, then released the brakes. The plane hurtled down the short slope then lifted into the air over the valley. Fingernail and the foreign workers were completely un-phased by this dramatic beginning to their journey. It was (and is) a quite normal part of life in the rugged, roadless interior of Papua.

Soon they arrived in a mountain town where they switched to a twin-engine passenger plane in which they flew to the coastal town of Sentani. Here they were collected at the airport for the drive to their final destination. Some minutes later, as the car wound along a narrow lakeside road, Fingernail asked with some puzzlement and indeed anxiety, “So when do we take off?”


Assumptions are the window through which we see and interpret the world. As individuals and as societies, we hold to assumptions that are as false as Fingernail’s. We see wheels, a chassis, front and side windows, passenger seats, a driver’s controls, and believe we are seeing a plane when in fact we are seeing a car. We misinterpret reality.

Some assumptions are tied to our personality and show up in very personal situations. Those of us who feel valued when somebody gives us a lavish gift may assume that everyone feels valued when they receive a gift. In fact, it can leave some individuals cold. Others feel valued as the result of, for example, relational time spent together, acts of kindness or service, physical touch or affirming words.*

We use our assumptions to assess others. In the early years of our marriage, I judged my wife as lacking in maturity because she would suddenly walk away from a difficult conversation before we had resolved the issue. I did not appreciate that as an introvert she needed time to process within herself. She wasn’t getting this because I — as an extrovert who prefers to process verbally in conversation — was pressuring her to remain in an intense conversation. By imposing on her my assumptions about how to best process information and manage conflict, I unwittingly made resolution harder.

Other assumptions define entire societies. Crossing cultures, one encounters totally different assumptions about time, authority, conflict, leadership and more. For example, in many Northern cultures youth is more valuable than old age: there are several reasons for this, but one is that the young are closer to the future, where there is up-to-date knowledge. To be up-to-date is to be closer to progress. In many Southern countries, however, the elderly are more valuable: they are closer to the past, where there is wisdom. Wisdom keeps us healthy and stable.

Our technologies, techniques and systems — whether smart phones, boardrooms, parliamentary democracy or family structures — are all expressions of our assumptions about what is important. I recall a Finnish executive expressing his frustration at the poor management of time by his multi-national team in Spain. Some wondered whether he should just shut the door on latecomers. In many Southern and Mediterranean cultures, honouring relationships takes precedence over the efficient use of time. The possibility one might offend a relative by rushing past them on the way to work is far more stressful to such individuals than the possibility of being late for work.

Unlearning Assumptions

Most readers of this article belong to a culture that loves new knowledge and equates it with progress. For the leader in pursuit of a better future, however, a key task is not only to acquire knowledge, but also to unlearn one’s assumptions.

Unlearning assumptions is one of the hardest tasks of leadership. Our assumptions are lenses through which we see, and this particular set of lenses is in our brain. Just as you can’t see the lens of your own eye (since you are using it to see), you can’t see your assumptions.

However, we can detect and unlearn our assumptions when we:

  • Put our assumptions on collision course with other assumptions, by exposing ourselves to different beliefs, personalities, cultures, sectors, industries and so on. We can do this by building multi-disciplinary teams, by travelling, by reading diverse types of literature, by immersing ourselves in new technologies or industries. Cirque du Soleil is famously the result of mashing together two quite different industries and the assumptions that drive the way they operate: the traditional three-ring circus and theatre. The result was not a shallow compromise but a deep reinvention of both forms of entertainment, to the delight of millions.
  • Disrupt routine work with dedicated learning moments in which the focus is on assumptions and not on solutions: I advised the Finnish executive mentioned above to make the matter of time and its use an intentional learning topic for his team, encouraging them to draw on the three (or more) sources of insight on his team: those from efficiency cultures, those from relational cultures, and he representing the business system’s culture (i.e. the wider, global system of delivery requirements and expectations within which the team operated).
  • Embrace failure as a learning opportunity. Failure is what happens when reality proves our assumptions to be false or inadequate. When the markets crashed in 2008 it sent a very strong signal to the world that our assumptions about Capitalism were wrong — particularly, as I’ve argued elsewhere, regarding the role of self-interest.

The chief quality of the unlearning leader is humility. We can neither unlearn nor learn if we hold to the notion that the successful leader has to always be right and on top of things. This humility enables us to find reason and logic within those personalities, cultures and systems that are so unlike ours. It enables us to admit the wrong in our own, to right the wrongs that result, to reconstruct ourselves, and to work with others towards a better future.


Another leadership insight from

Leadership by Soul™, Trademark and © Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

* from the book The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman.

 Related Articles