When Offering Help Starts to Hurt Your Leadership

Helping others grow and become successful in their roles is the hallmark of great leadership. So, when people on the team come to me with questions or problems they’re facing, my tendency is to dive right in and start finding solutions. While my motives in doing so are certainly genuine, I’ve recently learned that it doesn’t always serve the team or the mission in the best way possible.

About a year ago, my role at work started to shift me away from the more intimate details of each project, encouraging me to delegate the oversight of those to others in the organization. However, I remained an active decision-maker as people continued to lean on me for questions.

Over time, however, the scales tipped to where the team overseeing those details started to become more knowledgeable and more equipped than me to handle the day-to-day issues that would arise. Ideally as a leader, you’d be very in tune with when this shift started to happen and you’d systematically begin to delegate that decision-making as well.

Well, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

I’ll never forget the concerned look on my coworker's face when he stepped into my office and asked to debrief after a client meeting I had called. He told me that the meeting was almost an exact repeat of one he had already conducted with the client. He expounded on the history of what this customer had been dealing with and what steps the team had already taken to help them through this issue. He respectfully explained that when he had come to me with a question earlier, he wasn’t asking me to step in and manage the situation; he simply needed some guidance.

I was obviously very humbled in that exchange. I remembered back to when he approached me with his question and realized that I had been feeling the tension of what he was wrestling with, and instead of challenging him to embrace the tension and find a workable solution, I tried to protect him from it by stepping in. Failing to empower him as the better suited person to lead in that situation not only robbed the team of its best asset, but it also robbed him of an opportunity for growth on a personal level.

For someone who’s so passionate about helping people grow, it was sobering to realize that my actions were actually promoting the opposite—I was suppressing people's potential instead of empowering their progress.

I have since learned to change my approach when people come to me for help. I now stop and ask myself "does this person need my support or does this person need to be challenged?” If they need my support, I’m always willing to jump in and get my hands dirty, but if they need to be challenged, I create space for them to make the decisions and own the solution, while continuing to offer guidance along the way. The best leaders learn to discern this on a case by case, person by person basis and are not afraid to get uncomfortable for the good of someone’s growth.

The support-challenge balance was a life-changing lesson I learned from an author named Steve Cockram. According to Steve, leaders that are high on support and low on challenge encourage a culture of protection or dependency. On the other hand, leaders that are high on challenge and low on support create a culture that’s domineering. However, when both high challenge and high support are present, it creates what Steve calls a Liberated Culture.


"[Liberators] don’t just access the best people have to offer; they “stretch” the best people have to offer. It isn’t about your team’s competence, it is how much of that competence the leader can draw out and maximize for the good of the organization. Liberators fight for the highest good in those they serve!

I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want to lead people into dependency. I want to release them into their greatest potential.

So, where do you fall on the support-challenge spectrum? What do you have to add, remove, or refine to become a Liberator?