Buying into the hero myth can cause leaders to crash and burn.
There’s a hero myth that can build up around leaders. The great leaders stand alone, indomitable in the face of adversity, accomplishing their goals in the face of all obstacles. The last thing they need is help from anyone else. Their strength, wisdom and resolve brought them to this point and will, of course, carry them forward.
There at least two problems with myths. One is that they’re not true. The other is that, because they appeal to the full range of our emotions, they can suck us in to believing they’re true. And, like Icarus who fell to earth when his wax wings melted in the heat of the sun, buying into the hero myth can cause leaders to crash and burn.
All of this came to mind recently when I had the opportunity to listen to an accomplished executive leader speak about his journey during a coaches conference sponsored by one of my client companies. He’s the leader of a team that’s running some very challenging and game changing technology initiatives for the company. As the leader told his story, his confidence and competence came through loud and clear. He spoke rapidly and clearly about how his team approached the project, what they had overcome along the way and the impact that their work was having on the company.
It was impressive, but, honestly, it didn’t really resonate with me because in 18 years of executive coaching, I’ve heard a lot of stories like the one this leader was telling. Impressive, but not unique. That’s until one of the coaches asked him to talk about the biggest thing he’s learned in his current assignment. To my surprise, his answer was, “I’ve learned to ask for help.”
He went on to talk about how the complexity and challenges of what he was doing caused him to confront his limitations. He recognized that he needed help from his peer-level colleagues, from more senior leaders and from his team members. He was public and open in asking for help. His willingness to ask for help, he believes, was a critical factor in his team’s success.
At that point, I really was impressed. It may have been the first time I have ever heard an executive leader be so clear and transparent that they needed help and asked for it. It got me thinking about the value of leaders asking for help.
Based on what I heard last week and reflecting on what I’ve seen over the years, I came up with three reasons leaders should ask for help:
- Knowledge and capabilities. None of us are born knowing everything we need to know about what to do and how to do it. You can only get all of the knowledge and capabilities you need if you ask for help.
- Connection. By asking for help, leaders show vulnerability. By showing vulnerability, they demonstrate that they too are human. That establishes the kind of connection with colleagues that leads to collaborative, value-added outcomes.
- Role modeling. By asking for help and being open about doing so, leaders role model that approach for others. There’s a ton of leverage that comes with a designated leadership position. Just like financial leverage, leadership leverage can yield amazing outcomes when used well or disastrous outcomes when used poorly. Role modeling positive behaviors like asking for help almost always yields positive outcomes.
If you really want to be a leadership hero, maybe the strongest move you can make is to ask for help.