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The Best Leaders Are Helpful

The best leaders always ask how they can help.

By Gustavo Razzetti

December 3, 2018

Are you helpful or a hindrance to your team?

Most leaders believe they are self-aware, but they are not. Not surprisingly, the same happens with being helpful — leaders hinder their teams, even though most think they are helping them.

That’s what Professors Kannan Ramaswamy and Bill Youngdahl of the School of Global Management in Arizona discovered. Their research uncovered that 51 percent of employees believe that initiatives tend to succeed despite, not because of their leaders.

Many leaders fall into the ‘hindrance trap’ — thinking big disconnects them from the reality of the organization. They get lost in strategy and removed from implementation — leaders are often clueless if the organization can take on more initiatives.

"Don’t be fooled by thinking that if performance is great it’s because of you, not despite you.” — Kannan Ramaswamy

Being helpful requires self-awareness and generosity — remove the obstacles rather than add more. And let your team do their best work.

How Can You Help?

As a change consultant working with leaders and their teams, I deal with the ‘Hindrance Trap’ all the time — even the smartest leaders fall prey to it. We must increase awareness and encourage open conversations.

Start with a simple question: How can I help you?

Emphasize the ‘you.’ Help must be defined on their terms, not yours. Don’t assume you know what people need — let your team tell you when and how you can help them.

Obstacles — no matter how big or small — take away your team’s energy and ability to do great work. Some organizations suffer from self-inflicted wounds — they are mindless about how their behavior and rules demotivate people.

The hardest part of leadership is finding balance — you must challenge your teams and, at the same, remove unnecessary obstacles.

As Jocko Willink, former Navy SEAL and co-author of Extreme Ownership, said, “Just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities between one extreme and another.”

Listen and understand what people expect from you, not what will make you look good. People expect leaders to be helpful, not superheroes.

How can I help You?

Sometimes the best help is no help at all.

Be okay when your team doesn’t need you.

Great Leaders Are Givers

Your giving style defines whether you land at the top or bottom of the success ladder, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant. In his book Give and Take, he describes three types of reciprocity styles: Takers, Givers, and Matchers.

Takers are fixated on always getting more than they give. Matchers believe in quid pro quo. Givers are other-focused — they are driven by purpose and generously share their ideas, knowledge, and time.

Great leaders are Givers — they are generous without expecting anything in return.

Grant’s research also uncovered the risk of “help burn-out,” as I wrote here — giving too much or to the wrong person can become a weakness. Balancing the act is essential.

Leaders create win-win situations by being generous. They encourage others to become Givers as well as motivate Matchers — those who keep a tally of how much they give and receive — to give back too.

The most significant act of generosity is removing obstacles that are preventing your teams from doing their best.

Seven Ways to Being a Helpful Leader

1. Provide safe and open communication

Psychological Safety is the most critical element a leader can encourage. Feeling safe to speak up, express their opinions and ideas — and even challenge their bosses — is essential to drive collaboration and co-creation.

Psychological Safety is a collective belief that your teammates won’t be judged, criticized, or punished for speaking up — you must ensure everyone abides by that rule (you included).

2. Eliminate Time Wasters

Our addiction to meetings, reports, and bureaucratic processes suck your team’s time and passion. Shorten or eliminate meetings. Establish interruption-free periods for people to focus on deep work.

Work with your team. Identify time-wasters and remove them from their workday.

3. Break the rules with a purpose

Leaders are meant to turn the system into an ally, not the enemy. Sometimes, you might need to break the rules or inspire your team to do so. The point is not to break the rules for the sake of it, but with a clear purpose.

Rules should enable, not limit your team — performance matters more than process. Either change the rules or be okay with them, breaking them from time to time.

I use the following approach to breaking the rules. This prioritization helps me decide when to break them or not:

Outcome > Rule

Values > Outcome

Collective Good > Personal Benefit

4. Provide the resources people need

This might sound obvious and silly. But, every time we do a team assessment (regardless of the size), not having the right resources is a recurring frustration.

Team members need the basics (and more) to get their jobs done. Most companies assume people’s needs — they make decisions based on what management thinks is right. Ask your team what they need and get it.

Also, do your policies reward tenure or hierarchy? Many companies provide the best equipment to the senior executives, not to those who need it the most.

5. Be mindful about mood and workload

Helpful leaders alleviate the burden. Self-awareness is vital to understand how people are feeling and what’s affecting overall performance.

Practice mindset check-ins before meetings — create a moment for self-reflection and understanding what’s got people’s attention. Similarly, discuss workload and prioritize projects to avoid burn-out. Let your team identify and get rid of useless and meaningless tasks.

6. Remove politics by being consistent

Culture is the behavior we reward and punish. When people are driven by “what’s in it for me?” or “why should I care?” mindsets, it’s impossible to achieve collaboration. Politics divide teams and encourage a Takers style — people become calculating, cautious, and self-protective.

If you encourage people to be generous and collaborative, avoid reward Givers then. A healthy culture is a consequence of consistent behaviors. Promote collaboration, generosity, and fun rather than backstabbing.

As Patrick Lencioni said, “A healthy organization is one that has all but eliminated politics and confusion from its environment.”

7. Model Giving

Last but not least, remember that toxic behaviors start or end with leaders. Be a role model — be generous without expecting anything in return. Helpful leaders are a source of positive influence.

Encourage and reward Givers, not Takers.

As a leader, your core responsibility is to help your team — leverage your influence, knowledge, and time to unblock people.

Autonomy is the best way to reward your team. Helpful leaders are generous — they let go of power and control.

Great leaders are givers. They always ask, “how can I help you?”

Why Culture Design?



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