Leadership Koan: When Help Is Not

When I’m traveling I get to watch channels I forget exist, like Animal Planet.

Once I caught a clip of a wild giraffe giving birth. It was, well, wild. A huge fetus plops out of the Mama and hits the ground — seems like a rude way to begin life, for starters. And then, it’s just left there like a lifeless blob. Well, actually, the mother nudges the poor thing — still wrapped in an amniotic sac kind of covering — only once, just to make sure it’s alive, and then walks away.

The newborn is disoriented, distraught and hungry. The mother waits a good 10 feet from her infant for her infant to come to her. The infant cannot stand. It cries for her. It leans towards her. It collapses. It bleats louder.

The mother waits, distant and still as a statue. The narrator says of the mother, “She must allow the baby to find its legs and walk towards her. Otherwise it will have no chance of surviving in the wild.”

But the baby is incompetent! It feebly tries to stand on the cutest awkward giraffe legs but fails miserably. I want to shout to the Mother, “Go get your baby! Help it to stand! Help it to walk!” But Mama Giraffe won’t budge.

And guess who makes it to her to nurse? In about 10 minutes that baby finds its legs and walks like a drunken sailor on stilts to the teat.


Mama Giraffe’s neglect seemed cruel, but it was actually loving

That image has stayed with me ever since, and I summon it in times when offering help. I hate to see people suffer. If I have a piece of information that I think could ease their suffering, I want to give it to them. But if they don’t ask, or we don’t have a contract that authorizes me to freely advise, I am crossing a line.

What happens when leaders rush to help too soon? Share on X

Our intimacy is compromised, because we unconsciously insult their innate capability and competence.

As parents, lovers, leaders and teachers, we need to examine fiercely our impulse to coddle, fix and advise. We need to ask tough questions about help and who our help is really serving.

How can you distinguish a genuine call for help and a nascent cry that is better left ignored? And how to you hold steady, like a Mama giraffe, when everything inside you wants to rescue?

It’s a big topic. Here are a few guidelines for starters.

1) Let them ask: Allow those in your employ and in your inner circle to make a direct request for help, rather than go over into their space and rescue. Sometimes, even when they do ask, challenge them to find the answers on their own first.

2) Asses the development level: Is the person in question new to what you are helping them with? When I was a freshman in college, it took me a week to write a five-page paper on an Adrienne Rich poem for poetry class. It was awful. The professor, perhaps giving me the benefit of the doubt, gave me a C- and invited me to see him. In 20 minutes he taught me how to write a paper. He correctly assessed my level of ability and intervened on my behalf. It impacted my entire college and post graduate career, and probably this moment (thank you, Mr. Northwestern poetry prof; sorry I’ve forgotten your name).

3) Assess Who is really being helped: Are you helping because it makes YOU feel good? As a parent, is your 23-year-old living at home because of the economy or because you don’t want to face the empty nest?

It’s important to feel good about the help you are able to offer, and it can be pleasurable to assist. But if you are doing it solely to make yourself feel better without a sense of how it is best for the person you are helping, you may need to take a step back and wait it out like Good ol’ Mama G.

And of course, when you spot foreigners fumbling with a map on the streets of your town, all bets are off. Just help them find their way.

And remember, love yourself, no matter what.

6 responses to “Leadership Koan: When Help Is Not”

  1. Terri Klass says:

    This is such a wonderful topic, Blair and one which many leaders struggle with.
    I think it is essential to let our teams work through their assignments without micro-managing the process. Things don’t have to be done exactly how we would complete them. Having said that, it is also the sign of a wise leader to offer help and be approachable to assist. Then when we do reach out, it is terrific if we can “coach” more than “tell” in offering honest feedback.
    Well done, Blair!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks so much, Terri! I love that as a guideline . . . “coach, not tell”. And no, micro-managing is not helping. Thanks again, TK!

  2. Alli Polin says:

    A mantra that I learned years ago that I still call on to this day is that people are “naturally creative, resourceful and whole.” We as leaders, coaches, mentors and therapists are not fixers and cannot do for someone what they are unwilling or unready to do for themselves.

    Love this story, Blair! Truly illustrates your point so well.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks for reading Alli! I love that mantra. Sometimes people don’t make it so easy to remember!

  3. Can You please write more? It’s very useful. 🙂

  4. I love, love, love this story. I’m not even sure how I happened upon it just now, but I’m surely glad I did. The distinctions you make offer helpful guidelines for when leaving a situation alone is the most compassionate thing we can do. It’s very tricky business to know when to advocate for someone who is vulnerable in some respect without overstepping bounds. p.s. Also, I’m glad I’m not alone when it comes to forgetting the names of teachers (or others) who have made a difference in my life!

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