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Opinion: Successful leaders admit when they need help

Being a leader who is vulnerable, transparent and open to help can lead to a culture of collaboration and innovation, argues Andy Lopata

Andy Lopata, author and leading business network strategist
|Feb 27|magazine11 min read

Popular culture doesn’t necessarily do a great job of creating positive role models for business, does it?

From Gordon Gecko to Jordan Belfort, Sir Alan Sugar to Donald Trump, Dragons Den to The Apprentice, the message seems to be pretty consistent. Be infallible. The most successful leaders know the answers and have them ready whenever a challenge comes up. 

Leadership is all about force of personality and being better than everyone else around you. 

Strength is power. 

But is that true? And is the best example being set? 

I must admit that the constant reinforcement of this dog eat dog, winner takes all approach to business has led to me turning away from these shows. I believe that they send out completely the wrong message and it’s not one that resonates with my experience across my business career of over 20 years.

Rather than leaders knowing all of the answers, the best know how to build the right relationships and develop the network around them so that they can find the best solution to any challenge that arises. And they develop better performing businesses as a result. 

Humility drives great leaders. They surround themselves with people who are technically better than them and have complementary skills in a range of different areas and focus on bringing the group together, creating an entity far more powerful than any individual within it. 

They know their limits and are willing to share them. Great leaders recognise that they can’t be masters in every area of their business, so seek the best experts in each area and get their insights and ideas to find increasingly better solutions. 

One of the great buzzwords of recent years, and probably more relevant in both business and personal life over the last year than ever before, has been ‘resilience’. On the face of it, resilience and vulnerability seem to be at opposite ends of the scale – you either toughen up and work through whatever life throws at you or you complain about what is going on and admit that you can’t cope. 

But that misunderstands the true nature of vulnerability. For me, vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness, and enables us to be more resilient, not less. After all, if resilience is about achieving your objectives despite the obstacles thrown in your path, then surely availing yourself of the support, expertise and experience of others is going to make that easier. 

Asking for help does not betray an inability to cope or weakness in any other way. Instead, it portrays a strong mind, humility and an ability to access the resources needed to find the best solution. 

It’s easy for leaders to worry about the impression their staff have of them if they don’t lead with clarity and purpose. And that makes sense, it’s important that teams feel confident in the course their leaders set. The mistake lies in thinking that the leader has to know the course in the first place. 

Teams look to their leaders to lead but not necessarily to make key decisions in isolation. Great leaders are willing to admit that they don’t know the right answers but they take the steps to find them. That includes involving their teams in seeking the best solution. 

Surrounding yourself with the best people means that you can explore a range of options and find the best course. You don’t need to automatically know what to do, what people are looking for is a decision to be made and confidence in that decision. They often appreciate having the opportunity to share their ideas as part of the process. 

In fact, admitting vulnerability can often bring people on board. In January 2019 a new research paper was published by Harvard Business School arguing how it benefits successful people to be open about their failures. The team conducting the survey found that openly sharing failure decreased ‘malicious envy’, where people want you to fail, and increased ‘benign envy’, respect and admiration from others. 

In addition, it also motivated other people to do better themselves, something that we all need to achieve as genuine leaders. 

The research team told me that, "This strategy is especially inspiring for leaders, whose achievements and successes are self-evident but the struggles they overcame to succeed are unobservable unless they share them with their employees."

The message needs to change and organisations accept that vulnerable leaders are the strongest leaders. After all, if leaders can’t accept the benefits of being vulnerable, transparent and open to help, how can they expect their teams to do so? 

A failure of leadership to ask for help will spiral through the culture of the organisation, with a lack of collaboration, innovation and effectiveness not far behind. The best leaders admit when they need help because it makes business sense for them to do so. 

About Andy Lopata

A specialist in professional relationships and networking for over 20 years, Andy Lopata was called ‘One of Europe’s leading business networking strategists’ by the Financial Times. Andy is President of the Fellows' Community, a two-time board member of the Professional Speaking Association UK & Ireland and a Fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute, as well as a Master of the Institute for Sales Management. Andy is the host of the Connected Leadership podcast and is the author of five books including his latest, “Just Ask: Why Seeking Support is Your Greatest Strength”.

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