Leadership Caffeine™: Learning to Ask for Help

I’ve not met a person yet that doesn’t need help from time to time, and this goes double for anyone in a leadership role. Leadership is frequently lonely and those that take their role seriously truly fret over decisions surrounded by ambiguity.

The pressure to “figure it out” is tremendous, partially imposed by our fast moving and politically charged working environments, and partially imposed by our own misguided sense that to show that we need help is to show weakness.

I’ve known otherwise good leaders that derailed because they ended up in situations where Solomon himself might have sought advice, yet personal and perceived environmental pressures kept them from reaching out to others.

And yes, some of the fears and pressures are real. There’s no doubt in my mind that there is a boundary line that can be crossed where a person goes from legitimately needing help to just plain needy. Your challenge is to learn to use “Help” as a tool and to honor that boundary.

7 Ideas for Properly and Professionally Asking for Help

1. Organize the situation to quickly and clearly create context for others. Chances are that you will spend a great deal of time processing on the problem at hand before you reach out and ask for input.  What’s clear in your mind may sound fairly random and confusing to someone else unless you organize your message. Frame the situation and issues clearly and concisely before reaching out to a boss, peer or colleague. (See my post on message mapping as a tool.)

2. Identify the risks of not addressing the situation to show that you have thought through the implications to the team, the individual or the firm. But be careful not to over-state or over-dramatize the risks or the next time through, you won’t be taken seriously. (See also, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”) Highlight the most salient issues and implications as part of your narrative.

3. Never ask for help naked. OK, now that I have your attention, what I mean to say is, form and frame your key questions for help ahead of time. If you deliver your narrative and then just stop or, throw out the, “I’m just not certain what to do,” statement, you are passing the problem over to someone else, and they will resist and even resent this move on your part.

After describing your narrative and summarizing your risks, suggest a finite number of your best alternatives and break down the pros and cons of each. Ask for input, ask what other questions jump to mind, ask about prior experiences, and don’t be afraid to offer your own favored solution and ask for feedback.

4. Never ask, “What do you think I should do?” This is another question that leaves you exposed and attempts to shift your burden to someone else. Remember, it’s your job to tell us what you think you should do and the other person’s job to help you think through your logic.

5. Learn your manager’s help style. Most managers are OK offering help if you approach them properly. Take the time to study and learn your manager’s preferences when it comes to guiding others. Some enjoy getting into the details and others want the big picture along with your assessment of risks and your favored recommendations. Pursue giving too much detail to the latter manager or jump too far ahead of the manager that feels good helping you work through the issues, and you’ve misfired and missed a good opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your boss.

6. Tap into your peer network. Everyone should invest time cultivating group of individuals that will provide unvarnished feedback and will serve as an informal board of advisors. It takes effort to develop a quality network, but the dividends are potentially huge.  Having one or more trusted advisors that are willing to help you sift through and sort out the hairy workplace and marketplace problems is important for all of us.

7. Don’t forget to tap into your team. While this may seem counter-intuitive and it certainly flies in the face of the mistaken self-image of the all-knowing boss, your team members might have a collectively clear view to the problem and potential solutions. And the act of asking and then listening to your team members will do wonders for your credibility.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I missed the day that they were handing out the “all-knowing” hats and chances are that you did as well. We all need help from time to time and it’s both wise and acceptable to seek it out in the proper fashion. Asking for help is not an admission of weakness it’s an attempt to tap into the strengths of others. Just remember that you own the heavy lifting required to reach the point where others will gladly shoulder a bit of the burden.

By |2016-10-22T17:11:46+00:00November 1st, 2010|Career, Decision-Making, Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|11 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Eric Wallor November 1, 2010 at 8:12 am - Reply

    Art, great article. I find this advice very important for someone like myself who runs his own business and doesn’t have people he can just talk to in the next office day-to-day. This article helps to confirm my belief that not only do you have to keep building relationships with live people, but also use Facebook, Twitter and the other social networking platforms to build relationships because there are some very smart people in your field that are eager to help.

    • Art Petty November 1, 2010 at 8:19 am - Reply

      Eric, the need to develop that informal board is even more critical for entrepreneurs like you. Great reminder! Also, there’s no doubt that you can cultivate some remarkable friends and resources via today’s social platforms. I’m grateful for so many fantastic people that I’ve met and collaborated with or exchanged ideas with through these tools. Thanks for reading and commenting! -Art

  2. Ashley November 1, 2010 at 10:31 am - Reply

    I liked this post a lot. As a recent college grad I have just started my professional career and people are so encouraging of new people asking questions but it seems to be frowned upon for upper management. I can not tell you how many times I have had to go to 10 different people to get the correct answer to a questions, they seem afraid to simply say they don’t know.

  3. Three Star Leadership Blog November 3, 2010 at 9:31 am - Reply

    11/3/10: Midweek Look at the Independent Business Blogs…

    Every week I select five excellent posts from this week’s independent business blogs. This week, I’m pointing you to posts on asking for help, being needed, saying “thank you,” coaching, and leadership jazz….

  4. Gary S. Hart November 3, 2010 at 9:53 am - Reply

    Art, the reluctance many people have towards reaching out for help astounded me for many years. I maintained a general opinion that pride was the central issue. Until reading your post, I had not considered “knowing how to ask for help” as primary roadblock. Tapping in to your team resonated with me. Making them, part of the solution builds a better, well-bonded team through your trust and confidence in them. Thanks for a great post.

  5. Gwyn Teatro November 4, 2010 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    Art, a few months ago, I wrote a post entitled “Asking for Help” as well. Mine addressed a much more general view of the topic and was less business oriented. This is a great post, because it is specific and provides managers and supervisors with workable guidelines.
    I particularly like the “Never ask for help naked” guideline, not only because it made me smile but also because the importance of thinking through the kind of help that is needed should not be under emphasized. To your point, asking for help is not the same as passing the buck.
    If you are interested in what I had to say in my post, here it is http://gwynteatro.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/asking-for-help/

    • Art Petty November 4, 2010 at 5:51 pm - Reply

      Gwyn, thank you as always for taking the time to read my posts and to share your thoughts. Your words are always worth reading and thinking about! Best, -Art

  6. Mike Henry Sr. November 7, 2010 at 8:57 am - Reply


    Well thought out post. I realize you’ve been in this. I agree with you that we should always have a next step even if we don’t have a solution. I’ve done a poor job of this in my life too. Knowing what you’d like to happen is the first step in getting someone to help you get it.


    • Art Petty November 7, 2010 at 9:00 am - Reply

      Mike, wise words! Thanks for reading and commenting. -Art

  7. MAPping Company Success November 8, 2010 at 2:18 am - Reply

    […] always reliable Art Petty gives us a dose of caffeine to start the day with Leadership Caffeine: Learning to Ask for Help posted at Management […]

  8. […] always reliable Art Petty gives us a dose of caffeine to start the day with Leadership Caffeine: Learning to Ask for Help posted at Management […]

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