Helping Leaders by Not Helping

By | March 7, 2015

[March 07, 2015] There is no doubt that teaching and mentoring young leaders to develop their skills is critical to their future success. However, there comes a time where it is often better to allow them to experience failure. Sometimes, helping leaders by not helping them is the better alternative.

A fine line exists between allowing a leader to fail and allowing them to be a failure. The young chick must learn to fly, as the saying goes, and that will mean the mother bird pushes the chick out of the nest. In all cultures we find stories and idioms that let us know that a person must sometimes do the job without help.1 For a leader this also means doing it without oversight.

“Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it.” – John D. Rockefeller

I’ve seen it happen too many times; a mid-level leader with tremendous potential stumbles and drops out because he was given too much help early in his career. In particular, I saw this happen in women leaders – there was a tendency of more senior leaders to overprotect them. These women were some the brightest future leaders but that protection was not always exercised with the utmost care and their leadership growth was stunted by the very leaders trying to help.

Leaders must have the confidence in those they are overseeing in their leadership growth. Many leaders who receive too much assistance along their career path can become too dependent upon it and, when a critical event occurs requiring their leadership, they can fail. The risk to the organization and those in it are too great to allow to chance.

When not to help leaders is not easy to determine. There are so many factors that come into play that affects this decision point; capacity to learn, level of resilience, motivation, etc. My personal preference is to push the envelope by allowing leaders to fail on important but not critical tasks … and not allow them to be failures as leaders.

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[1] Idioms like “Sink or Swim”


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.