Adventures in Leadership

December 2017

The world of contemporary work has a number of dangers and traps for the unwary. One of the more common pitfalls is the feeling of overwhelm that comes with thinking you have to be able to do it all, and often alone. If you can’t, it means you aren’t good enough and shouldn’t be in your role in the first place. It’s been my experience that this particularly applies in leadership. It’s something I see commonly with my coaching clients, in my leadership program participants and, if I’m honest about it, in myself.

I was recently working with a coaching client I’ll refer to as Jane, who was drowning in this overwhelm. Jane was routinely working excessive hours, and had to be put onto a forced leave plan as she had accrued so much time off. Even then, she was still responding to emails and managing tasks and issues remotely.

That shows up a few a risks. Jane was at serious risk of burnout because of the volume of work she was doing, and also because she was putting intense pressure on herself to be all things to all people. Beyond the impact on Jane, she was also a serious risk to the business. By taking on so much herself, she left her business exposed to vulnerability by contributing to an environment of over-dependence on her. The realisation that she was contributing to the problem was a hard one for Jane: it was also the beginning of her being able to do something about it.

This is just one of the symptoms of overwhelm. It can also show up as micromanaging, inability to relax, presenteeism, and – crucially – difficulty in asking for help. Where does this need to be ‘perfect’ come from? And why is it a particular problem when exercising leadership?

This has been a topic of significant interest and study. One contributor to the field, Valerie Young, identifies a number of competence types which shed light on this behaviour. The types include the Perfectionist, who sets excessively high goals even as they’re crippled with self-doubt; the Superwoman or man who pushes themselves to work harder than anyone else; the Natural Genius who struggles most when they can’t get something right first try; the Rugged Individualist who struggles to ask for help; and the Expert who feels the need to master every aspect of their role completely in order to be considered worthy.

I really identified with the ‘rugged individualist’ type Young describes. Difficulty in asking for help is something I have struggled with, but I’ve learnt (the hard way, of course!) that I have to do it.

Recently I was struggling with a complex project I was managing. We were approaching a major deadline. I’d put in lots of time and effort, but had simply been unable to make the required progress. So I reached out to some colleagues I thought might be able to help me get ‘unstuck.’

The end result was that not only were several colleagues willing and able to assist, they were delighted to. They brought with them insights, experience and input which improved the deliverable for my client. And by providing a fresh perspective, they helped me see where my work had strengths, as well as where it could be improved.

Once upon a time, I had thought asking for help was a sign of weakness, and an admission of failure: if I couldn’t do it on my own, then I wasn’t good enough, especially when exercising leadership. With time and experience, I have learnt that this is not the case. Indeed, it’s the exact opposite. According to David Stuart and Todd Nordstrom, writing for Forbes, asking for help makes you a stronger leader in four critical ways: it forces you to grow and develop; it’s a healthy self-protective measure as it reduces your risk of burnout; it strengthens your ideas, insights and output; and finally, it gives those around you a chance to learn something new and grow their own capacity too.

Asking for help might run counter to our traditional ideas of leadership, but the evidence is clear: having the humility and self-awareness to ask for help makes us better, as well as reducing our risk of burnout.

When did you last ask for help? As we approach the end of this year and the beginning of another, consider whether being more willing to ask for help should appear in your list of resolutions for 2018.

To discover more about Leadership and how we can help you apply it in your workplace please contact us

Back to articles