Why Leaders Don’t Ask for Help

I was in Baltimore a few months ago, attending a conference for diverse suppliers. Apparently, as a woman-owned business, my company qualifies as a diverse supplier. My mandate was to find and network with procurement officers of mammoth companies so that I could introduce them to our speaking and coaching programs in the hopes that they would be moved enough to uncover a relevant need in their organization.

Trying to find the right person amidst a sea of 500 individuals and hit it off in just the right way was a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Over the course of the four days, I did my best to pound the pavement and put my best foot forward. While I met a LOT of people and had many conversations, for some reason I did not feel like I was making significant progress.

On the last day, at the last hour, things took a turn.

As I was leaving my hotel room to head to the convention center for the final tribute dinner, I noticed another woman leaving her room a few doors down as well. I also noticed her badge: Pitney Bowes. I asked, “Are you heading to the convention center?” After she nodded that she was, I introduced myself and we started walking together to the elevator. And we started to talk. She was the VP of Supplier Diversity. Fantastic!

She asked about my business and I eagerly told her that I own an executive coaching company called Frame of Mind Coaching™. I explained that the way that people typically learn about us was through speaking engagements.

She seemed very interested and asked a number of questions. I told her about our journaling process and our focus on how leaders think. I got the impression that, beyond her company, she was curious about coaching on a personal level. I gave her a copy of my book. We were definitely hitting it off. I felt like I had found that needle in the haystack. By then we had arrived at the convention center, and I asked for her card. She pointed to her lanyard and asked me to take a picture because it was her only remaining card.

I happily took a picture and we continued chatting.

The next moment, she was approached by a young woman who pointed to the ground and said, “Excuse me, I think you dropped something. Is that your business card?” It was.

And it was at that point that the VP of Supplier Diversity for Pitney Bowes took a huge breath and ever so slowly squatted down to pick up her card. She was clearly in a great deal of pain. It was written all over her face.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m OK, I just have a horrible back ache. I am not sure what happened, I think I pulled a muscle,” she explained.

“Oh no! I could have gotten the card for you!”

And that’s when I looked around and noticed that we were surrounded by HUNDREDS of people — hundreds of people who were ready and able to bend down and pick up the card.

But she did not ask for help — even when help was so readily available. She chose to suffer silently instead.

She is not the only leader who is not comfortable asking for help.

This is a common theme that arises for the hundreds of leaders who we work with every day. It’s not only that leaders are uncomfortable asking for help, they often don’t even think of it as an option.

Why is that? Why do leaders struggle to ask for help?

Let’s explore some of the possible reasons…

Leaders often believe that asking for help from others is a sign of their own incompetence or shortcomings. This triggers shame and embarrassment, leaving leaders deciding to go it alone rather than asking for help.

Leaders are leaders for a reason. They forge ahead, charting new territories and leaving others behind. They are often so far ahead of the pack that when they look around, they find themselves alone without anyone to lean on for support. This feeling of isolation teaches them to rely on themselves and they learn to adopt the mantra “If it is to be done, it will be done by me.”

It’s in their DNA — leaders take on many responsibilities. While this is a valiant trait, they tend to take responsibility for everything. This includes things they could outsource, delegate or even eliminate. They often hold onto projects, tasks and duties far longer than they need to, resulting in slower growth.

People turn to leaders for help — not the other way around. That is the thinking that causes leaders to feel that they need to be the ones with all the answers rather than the ones who ask for help. If I ask for help, then I will be perceived as not knowing, they think. I can’t have that.

Who likes to be vulnerable? It’s icky and uncomfortable. Asking for help requires vulnerability and an openness to allow someone else to step in and be the helper. It’s an intimate gesture and intimacy is not always super easy, even in the best relationships.

It’s not uncommon for leaders to think that asking for help is “cheating” and that the glory of success is not quite the same if they’ve had assistance. Asking for help somehow means that they are breaking the unspoken rule of independently achieving goals.

There are probably another 60 reasons that I could list that might explain why leaders are not comfortable asking for help. What they all have in common is that all those reasons are borne from a set of beliefs that state that asking for help reflects poorly on them. These kinds of beliefs drive behavior that keeps them trapped in going it alone, suffering in silence and carrying the load on their shoulders unaided.

Interestingly though — these beliefs are all fabrications that get in the way of massive productivity, efficiency and performance.

The Costs of NOT Asking for Help

There is no question that leaders tend to take a lot on a lot of responsibility and have a lot on their plates. The more they take on, the more balls they need to juggle, and as the number of balls increases, the less adept they are at handling the volume. Their human capacity and natural attention span prevents them from being able to attend to of EACH of their responsibilities with the same level of care and expertise. What this means is that not asking for help actually significantly increases risk of failure.

Asking for help and allowing others to help creates an opportunity for increased intimacy and closeness. Asking employees for help opens the door for them to understand where you are coming from and buy into your vision and mission. Giving them permission to help you lets them know that they are important and valued.

When leaders fail to ask for help, they are also making a decision to keep their thinking, their rationale, their vision and their existing knowledge to themselves. Asking for help enables a transfer of critical knowledge to others. When the transfer of knowledge takes place, so do resources, bandwidth and strategic growth.

Asking for help is a strategic way of leveraging the resources around you. Resistance to asking for and accepting help is a sure fire way to limit growth and create organizational bottlenecks that will ultimately impact productivity and profitability.

Leaders who do everything themselves are primary candidates for exhaustion and burnout. The more they take on, the more overwhelming it gets and the harder it is to succeed. It’s a slow, lonely and difficult road to try to reach your goals alone.

Are You Comfortable Asking for Help?

Take a moment to write down all the reasons why asking for help is difficult for you. These reasons are your beliefs. Now write down the costs of holding onto these beliefs. Ask yourself — are these costs significant enough for you to make a shift?

Kim is the President & Founder of Frame of Mind Coaching™ & JournalEngine™ Software, an executive coach & a supermom of 5. https://www.frameofmindcoaching.com/