by Jim Bruce
Today’s Tuesday Reading is an essay by Dave Acheson, Network Operations, Information Systems and Technology, Chapman University. His essay first appeared as a leaders program reflection earlier this year. [Dave may be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.]
Since my MOR Associates Leaders Program came to an end, I have struggled to continue the strides I felt I had made during the program. The importance of developing new desired habits to replace old, undesired ones is a big part of this struggle. One of the big underlying issues is that I believe that I need to have specific times on the calendar where I can work on new habits I want to develop. This is important, but I need to also stop limiting myself. I need to open my focus and realize there are unplanned opportunities every day where I can learn, where my action and response can be the beginning of a new positive habit.
This realization seems obvious, but when you are in the thick of it, it tends to get pushed to the background. And while “I-time” is important, reality is that a majority of our lives is spent in “we-time,” at work and at home, interacting with others, where we have opportunities each day to help others and (often more difficult) to be helped.
This is something my son has helped me to understand. When Ollie (now two) wants help, he will often say “Help you!” instead of “Help me.” He does this because he will often repeat the end of a phrase we often ask him: “Would you like me to help you?” So, we correct him, and he will then correctly say “help me.”
There was one time in particular a few weeks ago, when I felt overwhelmed with a combination of work and handling our two young kids at home. I arrived at home already in a less-than-great mood, and the second I opened the door I was greeted by a screaming 4-month old, a cranky toddler, and my wife understandingly fighting back tears from the seemingly constant chaos of the current situation. I told her to leave for a bit so she could clear her head and find some remnant of peace, and I held our 4-month old while trying to still engage Ollie in play.
The transition from work to home, as I’m sure many of you know, can sometimes be extremely difficult. These two lives are carried out in very different landscapes. On this particular evening, I was having a hard time adjusting to the work/home transition, and with a bunch of things swimming through my mind, found myself again in that familiar state where Ollie went to the door to our backyard and tried to open it without success. Frustrated, he looked at me and said, “Help you!” I was about to correct him when it hit me that his error in words contained a big truth. I need to help myself. And every time for the last few weeks where I corrected Ollie by saying, “Help me,” it was as if I subconsciously knew I needed help into getting myself balanced and living in the present.
We need to “help” ourselves, to take care of our mental and physical state. And while leadership is in part thinking about the future, it is important for us to be present not just as leaders, but also as human beings in each of the roles we hold in life. Being frustrated caused me to forget the absolute joy I have in being a dad, and really it had drained me of the crucial empathy we need to have as leaders. Since that day, I am working to develop the habit of pausing and saying “help you” every time I step into the front door of my house, of being present with my kids and intentional with my family. The same should be true with other’s work. Each person you come into contact with will appreciate you being in the present. And we need our mental and physical health if we are going to lead effectively. So please, help you.
On the flip side, correcting my son with the two words “help me” also revealed a truth to me in hearing myself say them out loud. I can’t do it alone. You also can’t do it alone. Even if you feel like you can, I’d argue you cannot. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like I want to do things myself – whether I think it is just easier to do myself or I don’t want to burden others.
And, some of that isn’t needed, really. Some of it is putting things on ourselves that others would gladly help us carry. So, I am learning that I need to rely on others, to not isolate myself in tough times, that there are people willing to help, and that it is in fact very unhealthy (not to mention impossible) to try holding the weight of the world on my shoulders.
In the workplace, it is very likely that some of your staff are looking for new challenges, individuals who you can help mentor or give assignments to that might help relieve you of some of the burden you feel is yours to carry. Requesting help from others isn’t a sign of weakness, and it can actually open doors through relationships that may not have been obvious before.
Our MOR Leaders Program group is a good example of opening ourselves up to help: we were given constructive feedback, working together with others who we likely never would have otherwise, and being a little vulnerable at times. All because we opened ourselves up to sharing our thoughts, ideas, and insights with others rather than keeping these things internalized. I’ve also started saying “help me” before entering my home. (I’m sure my neighbors are super-comfortable seeing me stare at my front door saying, “help you help me.”) We don’t need to do all of it all alone. It isn’t just bad leadership to do so; it is unhealthy. So please, help me.
In the coming days, I look forward to learning from the new experiences and insight, both from my workplace and from those in our leaders’ cohort. We should each work to improve our leadership skills, and support others as they grow no matter the situation or role we find ourselves in.
I’m struck by these four words – help you, help me. On one hand they are extremely powerful. And, on the other, they are somewhat scary. Both are loaded with real fear. If I ask, “May I help you?” I’m opening myself up to you. You may ask me to do something that I really don’t want to do, that I don’t know how to do, that I really believe that you should have the skills to do, etc. In short, just asking the question may put me in a very awkward, perhaps embarrassing position.
And if I ask you to help me, I may be exposing my lack of knowledge, of time because of poor planning, or my lack of physical ability. Again, awkward, embarrassing.
Dave is urging us to take these risks. To ask for help when we need it and to offer help to those around us. I personally believe that we will be in a better place, both individually and collectively, if we practice helping others and asking for help. As Dave and Ollie would say, Help you? Help me?
Make it a great week for you and your team this week. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.