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Learning to Ask for Help
It's okay to not have all the answers.

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I was talking to a friend recently who is second in command at a publicly traded billion-dollar company. He was telling me about an important project he was responsible for, and how at one point he became completely overwhelmed. It had gotten complicated, he said, and he wasn't sure what to do next.

"I went into my office, shut the door, and stared at the information in front of me." He told me. "I didn't know what to do, so I just let the wave of panic and anxiety wash over me."

Being in a leadership position does not necessarily mean that we will have all the answers, nor does it mean that we have suddenly acquired magical all-knowing super-powers.

My friend went on to tell me how he eventually resolved the problem by ignoring his insecurities and persisting through the issue. He started talking with others in his organization about it. This ultimately led to some good ideas for possible solutions. He did not let those negative emotions take over.

I can't tell you the number of times I have been sitting at my desk and all I see in front of me is ambiguity, chaos, and uncertainty. It's almost par for the course of being in management these days. If we are moving forward at all, we will be constantly facing uncharted territory where we are in over our heads with no immediate solution. We may be uncomfortable and intimidated.

Tim Brown, CEO of the Palo Alto design firm IDEO, knows the feeling. In a recent New York Times interview, he said:

"That was one thing that used to make me feel very, very insecure as a business leader—thinking: Am I supposed to have all the answers? Because I know I don't. And then I finally came to realize, well, nobody else has all the answers either. It's just that somehow we've got this culture of having all the answers … I'm personally perfectly comfortable admitting that I don't know the answers and that I'm more interested in the questions anyway."

Brown and other leaders like him have learned to become comfortable with uncertainty. Instead of needing to know everything, they learn how to ask for help.

William C. Taylor, founder of Fast Company, recently wrote in Harvard Business Blogs that

" … [This is] the mindset that too many of us expect even our most honest leaders to display—the assumption that being 'in charge' means having all the answers. In simpler times, fierce personal confidence, a sense of infallibility as a leader, might have been a calling card of success. Today it is a warning sign of failure, whether from bad judgment, low morale among disillusioned colleagues, or sheer burnout from the pressures of always having to be right."

He goes on to say that the smartest and most sustainable path for effective leadership is in asking for help from others. The best ideas are often going to come from customers, from employees, from peers and outsiders.

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Filters:Discipleship, Leadership development, Pastor, Pastoral care
References:2 Corinthians 4:8

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Sam Van Eman

January 31, 2012  10:32pm

I've been thinking about meekness lately, Brad, and your post connected me with it once again. We demonize our presidents and kings for not having instant solutions (Katrina, for example), yet we do this after the fact, as arm chair quarterbacks who wouldn't have had a clue either. I wonder how your friend's subordinates would have considered him if he had let that anxiety wash over him in a public space with them knowing what had happened.

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Megan Willome

January 28, 2012  8:58am

"Today it is a warning sign of failure"--so true. I think one reason my husband has been successful as head of a nonprofit is his willingness to receive input from board members, staff, and even volunteers.

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