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"Help!" Is this, rather than "Sorry", the hardest word?

By David Deegan

Help written in matchsticks

Being single I take many of my holidays alone, and I have a preference to travel under my own steam rather than go on guided tours. My most recent trip was to Guangzhou in China. It isn’t a major tourist destination so not a lot of English is spoken, and my Mandarin is ok but basic.

On my first night in the city, I realised how isolated I felt. I was going to struggle with the language, learn how to navigate the transport system, get onto the Chinese wifi system rather than eat up my roaming data in about 10 minutes, and even if I could get onto any wifi system, the two applications I would depend upon, Google Search and Google Maps, wouldn’t function because Google is not present in China. 

So in those circumstances, what do you do? I am a sociable person and have in the past not been shy to ask for help from strangers, but my basic Mandarin could make that a very long process. But if I reached out to friends, would I get questions such as “Did you not anticipate this? Just how much research did you do David...?”

But asking my Chinese friends was the only way I could think of getting speedy help. Using the hotel wifi I sent texts to a couple of them asking for advice. Within minutes they had suggested several useful applications for my phone that would work here in China, and one of my friends arranged for someone he knew in Guangzhou to drop by my hotel the very next morning to help me sort out a Chinese Sim card, a Metro card, and lessons in how to use both. And there were no sarcastic questions. They were just happy to be useful. Feeling phenomenally grateful I began wondering why sometimes we resist asking for help?

As leaders it can feel scary; we live in a VUCA environment, and it can be hard to ask for help. We are supposed to be leading, not following aren’t we? People look to us to lead them through this VUCA world. Surely people would lose faith in us if we turned round and asked for help, especially if we ask a seemingly obvious question?

Yet as leaders we should ask for help; we may stumble if we don’t, or worse, lead others to the wrong places. And leadership, like travelling solo, can also feel very isolating if we do not ask for that help.

Mentors can help alleviate that. Having a peer outside your organisation to use as a sounding board, to swap ideas can be enormously helpful. We may shy away from that for fear of giving away trade secrets but it is worth finding someone you trust who will offer reciprocity. A peer from within your organisation can be a more contextually-resonant sounding board, but once again trust will be crucial if we are to feel able to share. Some leaders also engage in reverse-mentoring, deliberately engaging in mentoring conversations from people on the front-line. By doing so they often learn much about new developments, new thinking, and critically, what is really happening and being felt and talked about by their employees, the things that their middle managers may be reluctant to tell them.

Trusting that those conversations are confidential is important, but that doesn’t mean they should be kept totally secret. Some of our employees may see us as weak, but most people will see us as being strong enough in character to have the humility to recognise that we do not know everything. Most people will see us as human, as a leader who takes time to learn about what is happening inside and outside the organisation, for the good of the organisation and the people within it.

And why do I travel under my own steam, making my holidays challenging, rather than using guided tours? As as leader should I not also be capable of followership? Absolutely, but guided tours mean following advice; there is little latitude for striking out on ones own. And if I follow blindly, 100% then I will only see the places I am taken to. And sometimes the best places are ones that I happen upon by accident. 

Equally, if I follow all the advice I receive from my mentors and don’t think for myself, there will be no true innovation. But if I choose to be my own leader; follow a bit of support and advice from my friends, and feel happy about making a few mistakes along the way, then I will feel more confident to venture into the unknown. As a solo traveller I will therefore get to experience so much more of the world, and as a leader I can bring the power of collected wisdom to those around me. 

As a final thought, if as a leader you resist asking for help because you believe people expect you to have all the answers, what part did you play in the creation of that expectation? And if that truly is the case, that people will be disappointed to find out you are not super-human, the sooner you begin to dismantle that myth the better. None of us are super-human, and people will find us out. Far better to be an active part of their discovery process.

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