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Asking for Help: A Counter-Intuitive Leadership Strength

We Americans love our self-sufficiency. And in the world of leadership, self-sufficiency is seen as a sign of strength. We are groomed, over years, to believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. A bigger lie: we are groomed, over the years, to believe that asking for help will push people away from us. And while we often don’t live on that plane of emotion, our deeper needs of connection and relationship drive us to this (counter-productive) “I can do it by myself” approach.

Here are two counter-intuitive truths:

Asking for help is a sign of a strong, self-actualized leader with a high level of personal awareness.

When a competent person asks for help, she draws people to her, emotionally, rather than driving them away.

These themes were one of the central focuses of the yearlong coaching program I went through with John Townsend. My cohort had 10 leaders at the beginning. As John started to make these themes clear at the first meeting, two participants couldn’t connect with it. One of them made a presentation at our very first meeting. He talked all about his great success and all the amazing things he was doing. In light of Townsend’s themes, I asked at the end of the presentation, “What do you need from us?” He was lost and uncomfortably said, “I don’t think I need anything.” But that was counter to the entire focus of the program, and he didn’t return for our second meeting. Another man dropped out after three meetings (and this one was actually quite needy). But the 8 of us who stuck with it learned so much, and each had major breakthroughs in trusting others, expressing our needs, and asking for help. There were often tears connected to this, as the needs we learned to express weren’t at the surface levels of “I need a contact for this” or “I need an idea for that,” but were more along the lines of “I’m deeply wounded and need someone to tell me what happened to me as a child wasn’t my fault,” or “I’m feeling very insecure about this and need help in dealing with my fears.”

I don’t know that I realized it much during my latter years at Youth Specialties, but I was stumbling into this learning myself. Our leadership team began to hum like none I’d ever been a part of (before or since), as we got truly honest with each other and relied on each other at both personal and work levels. And the broader team at YS seemed to withdraw from me when I presented an “I’ve got it all together” vibe but was drawn together (and to me) when I was fully, uncomfortably honest.

A week ago, a friend popped up on Google chat while I was working one day and simply wrote: “New learning: asking for help is hard but so much better than going it alone.”

This was from a strong leader, an extremely gifted man. And he’s experiencing a breakthrough into a new level of growth and wholeness that will cause, I believe, his future leadership to far surpass the successes he’s experienced to this point in life.

All of this was floating in the back of my mind somewhere last week when I had coffee with a local ministry leader. We made small talk for a while (you know, “ministry small talk”). Then he started into an ask, something along the lines of, “I’d like to figure out how we can help each other. I’m not sure what that looks like, but if we could start meeting regularly, I think we could provide things for each other that would grow both of our ministries.” Suspicious, I asked, “Like, what kinds of things?” He went on to try to talk about iron sharpening iron and stuff like that. But it was clear to me that he wanted help and wasn’t comfortable asking for it, so he had to pose it as a mutually beneficial thing.

I went into coaching mode, figuring some honesty and coaching might be more helpful to him than me just blowing him off or agreeing to something I wasn’t going to follow through on. I asked his permission to speak bluntly. With his consent, I said, “The things you’re suggesting you can help me with aren’t things I’m asking you to help me with. And they’re all things for which I have people who provide that help. What I think you’re trying to ask is if I would be willing to help you. And here’s the reality that could be a learning moment for you: when you pose the question laden with soft ideas about how it would be mutual, you drive me away because I’m not asking for help, but if you would just come out and ask for help, I’d be drawn to you — both emotionally and as a local ministry leader. Don’t try to manipulate me by offering help only to get it. Just be honest and ask for what you need.”

Since then, he has written me a few e-mails, clearly re-articulating his ask. And I’m quite sure I will do what I can to meet with him and help him. And it’s very possible that will shift, over time, to a friendship that offers something to me also. It’s possible that I will have requests of him at some point, even.

Knowing when you need help, clearly articulating it, and asking is strong leadership, not weakness.

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Mark Oestreicher is a 30-year veteran of youth ministry, and the former President of Youth Specialties. Marko has written or contributed to more than 50 books, including the much-talked-about Youth Ministry 3.0. Marko is a speaker, author, consultant, and leads the Youth Ministry Coaching Program.