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Leadership: Situational Awareness & 2 Things to Avoid.

As a leader leads their team in a changing environment, there are two things a leader must avoid and lead their teams to avoid as well. 

It is interesting that as I trained pilots & flight crews, I found these 2 things evident more than one might think and the same is true for organizational  leaders.  I will address each briefly but in short, a leader must avoid “Assumptions” and “Excuses”.


As a Business Jet Captain, whenever I would brief the Co-pilot on the takeoff and abort criteria, I finished off every brief with the simple confirmation that:

“We always KNOW or we ASK, we never assume anything!  That includes between us and the passengers or between us and Air Traffic Control”

In a changing “VUCA” (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) environment, your assumptions are based on factors you may not have predicted accurately and as such, your solution may not be the best one or even a successful one.

Assumptions carry a key risk that if factors on which we based our assumptions do not present themselves or if a factor that we did not predict does arise, it can have a negative impact on the outcome.  Our assumptions are typically based on some of the following:

My knowledge needs nothing more (even if I do not know what I do not know)I have asked all the questions I need and the RIGHT questions and I have all the answers.The situation will always be as expected or predictable.

It can be very insidious that we think the situation is as it always has been but the environment could be different.  It may not fit the “academic” situations.  If this happens, it is easy for the team involved to actually deflect their responsibilities in the situation and to make excuses.


It is one thing to acknowledge the factors that arose, but it is totally another to evaluate what we as the leader and the team  learned and how to we apply what we learned to enahnce our success going forward; to adapt when necessary.

Making excuses often causes us to mentally, and from habit patterns, to fall back on excuses and when we think of it in that way, insidiously it makes us stop the process and we blame rather than learn and adapt.  From a Neuroscience aspect, our brain’s frontal lobe goes into a “holding pattern” and the Cerebellum kicks in with what we have always fallen back on.   It can also make the members use Defense Mechanisms such as deflection, often evidenced as The Blame Game when results are not “As Expected”.

Leaders must not forget that often Creative & Radical Solutions that no one thought about before are often created when the stress arises and this is derailed when defensive mechanisms kick in.  Assumptions and Excuses can derail the unexpected and creative solutions.

A good picture is from the old movie “Top Gun” when at one point the commander was talking to the main character and simply said “That crash was hectic and would have shook me up but a great pilot is always compelled to assess what he/she has learned so that they can apply what they learned going forward”.  This is not only a critical skill for the leader to have but a critical part of the team culture that needs to be developed and led by the leader.  In a rapidly changing environment, the leader must allow themselves this process of  learning the lessons and developing along the way.  The leader must also lead and model it to develop the same in their team.

As you the reader think about your organization, at what points has your team make Assumptions or fallen back on Excuses for a given situation?  What might you need to do differently to have a different mindset.  A mindset that reduces defense mechanisms and lends itself to increasing awareness and moving to radical results.

Randy Swaim, Coaching for Relevance, LLC


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