As a leader, when was the last time you asked for help from someone more junior to you?  I’m not just talking about delegating and passing on something you’re too busy to do, but really ask for help as you can’t cope, don’t know where to start, are confused or you don’t have the confidence or expertise. Often leaders feel that asking for help is showing too much of their vulnerable side, or that it could be seen as a sign of weakness for someone in their senior position.

Let me share some situations where leaders don’t ask for help.

A new manager in post shared a story with me recently about how their superior would ask them ‘do you need any help?’, and each time they would say ‘no, I’ve got this’, and then would go away and muddle through, and take far more time than the task needed. All because they felt they couldn’t ask for help.  The cost of keeping face was not only their time but also the stress of having to figure it out and make costly mistakes along the way.  They had assumed the role of The Deflector, batting back any offers of help in case it was seen as being weak or incompetent.

A colleague I knew had a strong Controller Saboteur and liked to take the lead in any project, whether related to their role or not.  They were always confident of the merit of their ideas and whole-heartedly believed they would provide real value and expertise in almost any given situation.  They had a strong conviction of being right, without ever considering that they could be on the wrong track, or that others may have even better ideas than them.  They assumed the role of giving help (especially where it was not needed) but would never dare show that in return they needed any assistance.   They took on the role of The Shining Knight, hiding behind the armour that hid from view their weaknesses of not knowing.  The cost of this role for them was exhaustion and stress, and for their colleagues, resentment as once again they had taken over.

A leader I met years ago also had difficulty in asking for help.  For them, as the head of the organisation they had not only taken on the role but the responsibility for getting things right for everyone and everything.  They spent hours poring over the operational details of the organisation from top to bottom, believing that they had to know it all, be prepared to answer any questions at any time, as well as to spot-check that everyone knew what they were doing.  Even though they had managers, they felt duty-bound to have it all figured out – for everyone.  For them asking for help demonstrated that they couldn’t do their job, they become the Superhero of the organisation, without realising that by taking over, they were in fact taking away the confidence and empowerment of those around them.

Finally, I have recognised in many women leaders I have coached an element that I call the Tiny Giant, where their inner confidence doesn’t match their outward appearance of bravado, ability to get on and to function effectively at a senior level.  Their self-belief in their skills, abilities and expertise has for a myriad of reasons slowly crumpled away (returning to work after a long absence, dealing with the effects of menopause, working with more senior yet younger colleagues, constant change – to name a few).  For them, asking for help felt like career-suicide, highlighting that they were no longer capable to fulfil their role.  The impact of taking on the role of Tiny Giant was the dwindling of their self-belief and self-worth as to who they really were.

You probably recognsie yourself at times in some of these characters – The Deflector, The Shining Knight, Superhero or the Tiny Giant.  But what you are witnessing is your gremlin, your saboteur, your inner critic – and not actually who you really are.  In coaching we know that there are three simple steps to making changes in how we view our world and the situations we find ourselves in:

  1. Notice – recognise when and where there are patterns of behaviour or thoughts at play.  In this case, recognising yourself as someone who finds it difficult to ask for help, and look for when this happens or who with.
  2. Name – put a label on what you are experiencing, once you have a name for the feeling or thought you have moved it into your conscious thinking and are better able to then deal with it. Even if you don’t recognise yourself in terms of The Deflector, The Shining Knight, Superhero or the Tiny Giant, just calling it something – anything helps to highlight its presence in your life.
  3. New thinking – having noticed and named it you now have choices, to create new thoughts that will serve you better.  Turn around the ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’ and ‘I will’, consider how by asking for help you are role modelling how to ask for help from others.  Or ponder on the merits as a leader to show a willingness to learn, make mistakes and demonstrate a Growth Mindset.

Barack OBama said, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.”

Research and on-the-ground evidence echo what Barack suggests, that as leaders asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.  By role modelling and embracing the not knowing, as a leader you are creating a new culture that follows a Growth Mindset and encourages more risk-taking, learning opportunities, improved team morale, and better-informed decisions.  In a recent Forbes article it suggested four essential reasons for asking for help:

  1. Choosing to live in your discomfort zone – we know from the pressure vs performance graph that optimal performance comes in the ‘stretch’ zone where we are moving away from our comfort zone and are dipping our toes into the occasional strain of a new challenge.
  2. Choosing to protect your greatest asset – burnout since the pandemic has become more of a concern with statistics moving from 50% to 77% of professionals experiencing burnout in their roles.  In 2022 Deloitte discovered from 1000 respondents that 91% experienced unmanageable stress or frustration that was impacting their work.
  3. Gaining different and varying insights – the Great Work Study, by the O.C. Tanner Institute, showed that 72% of people who received awards for their work would ask for advice, help, insights, and opinions from people outside of their inner circle. Giving them fresh ideas and perspectives on how to solve problems that they otherwise wouldn’t have imagined.
  4. Building the people around you – we forget that asking for help from someone benefits them as they are shown appreciation for their knowledge and skill, a sense of trust and an opportunity to demonstrate their talent to someone more senior.

While asking for help can be difficult for many leaders and can feel like a ding in their own self-esteem, the benefits for others, the organisation and ultimately themselves profoundly out-weighs the few moments of discomfort.

If you’ve recognised your inability to ask for help – then take the brave step and ask for a sample coaching session from me where we can explore which character are you and what you’re missing out on by not asking for help.

Book your free one-hour coaching with me today.