In the Fortune 500 world that dominates the business section of the Wall Street Journal, when asked to think of exemplary leaders, many will tend to elicit the image of the sea-weathered captain looming over the bow of the ship fearlessly taking on the raging storm to lead her/his crew to novel shores. The larger than life pictures of Whitman, Iacocca, Welch, Rometty, and Jobs flash on the cover of the Harvard Business Review.
It is safe to say that a clamor for help is not something the conventional big business/big hero society would naturally endorse in the lexicon of a great commander seen as fit to guide an organization to new horizons. To many, a leader asking for help may have an undertone of weakness, especially in a culture which is likely to revere the winner-takes-all, alpha-leader, product of a high strung MBA program that teaches us that being the first to get the right answer while leaving others behind is the winning recipe.
Alas, the consequences of this approach can be catastrophic. At a small, scale a project suffers from sub-par execution and little backing as a disengaged team half-heartedly go through the motions to get to an imposed milestone. On the other side of the spectrum, the largest oil spill in history can go on for days without anyone saying “HELP! We are up against something the likes of which we have never seen. We’re sorry. We messed up. We are committed to fixing it, but we need help”.
The crux of the matter is that asking for help is accepting vulnerability. Accepting vulnerability puts us at risk of being found not worthy. And let’s face it, not worthy does not yell out master and commander.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. In 2010 she gave a heartening speech on vulnerability in TEDx Houston. There are few investments of 20 minutes that will give you the return of truly listening to Brown’s TEDx speech.
Brown’s research shows that at the essence of being at ease with vulnerability lies in courage at its etymological root (courage-from the Latin cor = heart). A true leader tells her/his true story from the heart, daring to invest in a relationship before knowing if it will be successful. True leaders openly depict themselves, including their weaknesses, opening the door for others to help them if not overcome them, at least remain aware of them and mitigate their impact. Additionally, there is no deeper sense of commitment that can be reaped from a team than that nurtured from the knowledge that their leader is authentic, transparent, and trusts them enough to show her/himself in full.
So try it out, “HELP! I am not superhuman” just may be the boldest battle cry you can lead your troops to battle with.