Leaders are increasingly finding themselves in situations where they need help from subordinates, and in which subordinates are asking for help in areas where leaders are not experts. To manage either situation effectively, a leader will have to develop a degree of humility and specific process skills. Readers will learn how to achieve those difficult goals in this article by the dean of organizational behaviour.

“The world runs on illusions and hypocrisy. We all have to collude to uphold each others’ claims as being competent human beings. Above all, we have to pretend that leaders are self-sufficient, so that we don’t become too anxious. So why would a leader even consider asking for help?” (Edgar Schein)

In this article, I would like to show why offering, giving and receiving help is more important than ever in the emerging world, and why doing so will be a particular problem for leaders.

What else is happening? Why will help be important?

In the turmoil of the current economic crisis, there is a great danger that we are overlooking several other enormously consequential things that are happening in the world. They are all interconnected and will greatly influence what leaders of the future must be and do. These “consequential” things are:

  1. Increasing technological complexity
  2. Evolution of information technology and the web
  3. Globalization
  4. Global warming and social responsibility

Managing each of these realities will require a new form of leadership, the essence of which will be the ability and desire to accept, offer and give help that is actually helpful. The key and operative words are “actually helpful.” Below, I will analyze why helping is a complicated social relationship that will require leaders to learn some new attitudes and skills.


All the functions that make up the typical modern organization have become technically complex. Manufacturing is using sophisticated logistics and inventory- control methods as well as various degrees of automation. Finance and treasury uses sophisticated and complex analytical methods and mathematical models for investment decisions. Marketing uses professional surveys of consumers and analyzes them with advanced statistical methods.

The impact of this growing complexity is that a leader, whether the CEO or a project manager or the chair of a task force, will know less than most of his or her subordinates about how a specific task is to be accomplished. Leadership’s job will be to ensure that a good problem-solving and decision-making process is in place, though it will not involve direct decision making. If the team is composed of multiple functions or members of other organizational or national cultures, the leader’s job will be to provide processes to enable the members to overcome their cultural differences and to work together productively.

Information technology and the web

Information technology and the web will produce yet another set of new challenges for leadership, because the work itself will lend itself to being done increasingly to non co-located teams. It used to be taken for granted that teamwork and mutual trust could only be built in face- to-face situations. Yet increasingly, organization-development consultants and managers report that they are doing team building with groups that are all over the world and have never met. Thus, leaders will have to learn how to influence networks, which will inevitably require getting help from subordinates and peers on how to organize work, set goals, and monitor performance.


The impact of globalization means that more and more of the subordinates will be from other cultures, requiring leaders to develop processes that enable cross-cultural understanding and collaboration. Leaders will have to lean more and more on organization-development specialists who can create processes to enhance emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence and intercultural teamwork.

Global Warming and Social Responsibility

The growing concern for the environment will increase the pressure on leaders to figure out how to be more “green” and more socially responsible. This challenge may be the most difficult of all because it will require good communication with subordinates who may be ideologically less concerned with traditional economic indicators of organizational effectiveness, such as return on investment.

Why “helping” is counter-cultural for leaders?

The leader of the future will have to both seek and give help. The problem is that both giving and receiving help are activities that are, to a considerable degree, countercultural for leaders. To explain this, we need to consider that in most cultures, once a person has grown to adulthood and is healthy, the norm is that she or he can manage on their own. To ask for help puts the person “one down” and makes that person temporarily vulnerable. At the same time, it temporarily empowers the helper, which provides opportunities to take advantage of the situation. Consider for a moment how often help misfires because the helper jumps in with premature, unsolicited advice and recommendations, instead of asking the individual what he or she really needed. On the other hand, to offer help when it has not been asked for is often viewed as insulting, in that it implies that the recipient cannot manage on his or her own.

The point is that offering, asking for and/or receiving help are disruptions of the normal flow of the social order and must therefore be handled with care if the help is to be helpful. The pitfalls of helping are inherent in any relationship, especially in a relationship governed by a hierarchy. The higher-ranking person ordinarily finds it difficult to ask for help from a subordinate, not for personality reasons but because the social order defines it as “abnormal,” that is for the higher up to need help from the subordinate. It might be considered a loss of face for the boss to go to the employee for help, so it is unlikely to be done even when necessary.

For the superior to offer help to the subordinate is considered normal in the social order, though the impact of giving unsolicited help has the potential to de-motivate the subordinate and make him or her more dependent. Such dependency is especially dangerous as technology becomes more complex, because a boss may not realize how quickly he or she is becoming obsolete, though they nevertheless continue to give orders, behaviour that may actually force subordinates to become insubordinate.

The helping dynamics that I have described so far operate largely outside of our awareness, except when something goes wrong—when we get the wrong kind of help or try to offer help and are rebuffed. The cost of bad help or no help is not so high when peers are involved. But the cost becomes dangerously high when hierarchical relations are involved in the conduct of important business. It will therefore be necessary for leaders of the future to learn how to understand the subtle dynamics of helping and to train themselves to become both better helpers and better clients.

Some general principles of helping1

To fully understand why help is problematic, especially for leaders, we have to consider that the social order in all cultures is based on “social economics”— interactions have to be perceived as fair, and based on “social theater”—in all situations we have to be in the appropriate role. In normal encounters between superiors and subordinates, fairness or economic equity is achieved when the subordinate shows the proper deference and the superior shows the proper demeanor. This means that if the subordinate asks for help in an appropriately deferential manner, the superior is obliged to provide it. This situation can prove troublesome if the subordinate asks a “stupid” question or one to which he is expected to know the answer. The superior must then figure out how to ask, in a non-punishing way, why this seemingly stupid question is being asked. If the superior acts punitively or impatiently, he will reinforce the dependency of the subordinate and, worse, teach the subordinate not to come back with questions. If the superior inquires genuinely, he or she will create the norm that anything that the subordinate brings is worthy of attention, behaviour which equilibrates the situation and makes genuine communication possible. The boss might then find out what is really going on and figure out what would be helpful.

In the ideal situation, the subordinate’s proper deference is to ask for help respectfully and to be clear about what help he or she really needs. “Don’t bother the boss with stupid questions or ask for something unreasonable.” For the boss, the proper demeanor is to be open to whatever the subordinate brings up, to help the subordinate to be clear about what help he or she really needs, and, above all, to be in an inquiry mode before jumping in with advice or other forms of help.

How does this work out if the boss decides to offer help gratuitously, without having been asked? “Here, let me show you how to do that.” There are two dangers in this action—1) the boss may be “wrong” or less competent than the subordinate, or 2) the subordinate might feel “put down” by the boss’s assumption that the subordinate does not know how to do the particular task. The consequence of either of these actions is that the subordinate will lose respect for the boss and be less likely to share critical information with him or her in the future.

The metaphor of social theater comes into play in that the leader has a choice of what role to play once he or she is thrust into a helping situation. There are three possible roles: 1) The leader can be an “expert” who provides information, actually does the job for the subordinate, or in other ways displays superior knowledge or skill; 2) The leader can be a “doctor” who diagnoses the situation and offers prescriptions (which may include “surgery,” by correcting something that the subordinate is doing wrong); 3) The leader can be what I have called a “process consultant,” by first inquiring about the nature of the help needed, why it might be needed, and how it might be gotten best.2

A central principle of helping is that it should begin in the process consultant role in order to elicit appropriate information on what is actually needed and in order to equilibrate the relationship by showing respect for the client’s own understanding of his or her own situation. Once the leader understands what the subordinate actually needs, he or she can offer the appropriate help by shifting into an expert’s or doctor’s mode (or stay in the process consulting mode and adopt a coaching approach). There are two dangers in adopting the expert or doctor roles prematurely: The wrong problem will be worked on, because the subordinate was not encouraged to be clear about what he or she really needs, and secondly, the subordinate will become more dependent.

To be a process consultant at the outset will require that leaders have a quality that I have called “humble inquiry,” an attitude and a set of skills that are not ordinarily mentioned in lists of leader “competencies.” Yet this role is the essence of what we mean by mentoring, coaching, counseling and in general, helping. Skill in process consultation is based first on the recognition that task and interpersonal process are critical to effective problem solving. Once leaders understand this intellectually they can begin to learn how to set up and manage interpersonal processes such as meetings, team building sessions, performance reviews and coaching. For many kinds of problem solving it will not be effective to use “facilitators.” The leader will have to set up the right processes and be the facilitator. Skill in process management will then transfer directly to managing helping relationships.

Will leaders need help and how can they accept it?

If the scenario I am describing comes to pass, the situation will frequently arise where leaders will unwittingly create problems for their more technically superior subordinates. For subordinates then to “help” their leaders move toward more appropriate leadership behaviours is even more countercultural, because it implies a loss of face on the part of a leader. Whereas it is culturally appropriate for a leader to unilaterally offer help to subordinates, it not appropriate for the subordinate to offer help unless asked, because it implies that the leader is not on top of his or her job. The problem is comparable to the dynamic in the parent-child relationship. Whereas it is considered normal for parents to help children, it is generally not normal for children to help parents until the parents are infirm because of age or injury.

The most problematic scenario is the one in which the subordinate perceives that the boss actually needs help, but the boss fails to recognize this reality and may actively deny that it exists in order to save face. Social economics would dictate that the subordinate must then find something of value to give to the boss, such as critical information on performance. From this point of view, the scenario in which the subordinate also provides the boss with some possible solutions that the boss can “reinvent” and claim as his own is appropriate. Ideally, leaders would understand this dynamic and be willing to ask for help, but if they are not so inclined, subordinates will have to invent ways of giving help while not appearing to be doing so.

If leaders become more expert at managing group and interpersonal processes, they will be more able to display humble inquiry in the content arenas that they manage. This suggests that another way for subordinates to offer help is to propose ways of doing things that will enable a leader to admit a lack of knowledge. For example, the subordinate might say—“To get the decision on this new product line why don’t we invite Pete, Joe and Mary to a review discussion so that you can find out what they have learned on all the new stuff.” While the subordinate knows that Peter, Joe and Mary know all the necessary technical details that the boss does not, the subordinate’s suggestion allows the boss to pretend that he or she is reviewing rather than learning.

As we have seen, in all cultures it is in the nature of the social order that the act of offering help upward must be managed very carefully when the superior has not asked for help or created a climate of acceptance for receiving help.

Advice to future leaders

As the world becomes more complex, networked, interdependent, multi-cultural and ideologically diverse you will increasingly find yourself in situations where you will need help from subordinates, and in which subordinates will ask for help in areas where you are not an expert. To manage either situation effectively you will have to develop a degree of humility and the process skills that will enable you to accomplish the following things:

  1. Create a climate in which subordinates will come to you and offer help, where they can be comfortable in recognizing that their expertise is greater than yours and that you need help.
  2. Be able to accept help without feeling a loss of face.
  3. Be able to respond to subordinates’ requests for help with enough inquiry to find out what they actually need and how you could actually be helpful.

Whatever else you think about or do, do not oversimplify the helping process. Rather, recognize how complex the helping relationship is, especially across hierarchical boundaries. And most difficult of all, perhaps, accept that you will eventually become obsolete in many content areas and develop the process skills that will enable you to manage and help your technically superior subordinates.

  1. The sociological theory underlying these points is best articulated by Erving Goffman in his seminal book Interaction ritual. Pantheon Books, 1967.
  2. Schein, E. H. (1999) Process consultation revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.