Many leaders have the notion that it is lonely at the top. Like so many things, if you believe it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact is no one has ever accomplished anything of any significance alone. Think about that. I think about my first successful, unassisted step as a toddler!
But then I think of all the support and caring I had before taking that first wobbly step all by myself. Can you think of anything you accomplished all by yourself? If you have, I would love to hear about it!
The founding fathers of applied behavioral science understood the essentiality of support. To succeed, teams and organizations need to emphasize cooperation, collaboration, and consensus. Each is a configuration of support.
There are different ways to improve organizations, such as team building, strategic planning, and process re-engineering. Each involves improving communications, developing mutual understanding, and sharing decision-making. All are core parts of the practice of effective leadership as they actualize support for whatever goals are the target.
All successful human endeavors have resulted from successful support systems. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other “captains of industry” did not build their business empires alone. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, nor Bill Gates and Paul Allen built their megalithic companies alone.
Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did not free their countries by themselves. We hold such people up as individually powerful with little acknowledgement of the huge support systems that surrounded them.
The puny human race dominates the planet because of our ability to support each other.
Yet, the intentional building of support systems has become problematic. Regardless, building strong support systems is crucial for the success of all leaders. In fact, leaders are leaders because of the support of their followers.
Two Ways Support Systems Are Critical to Leaders
- Leaders require the support of their followers to accomplish their goals. In fact, they create a critical mass of support. This is the bottom-line for successful organizations. Failing to achieve critical mass, the organization and its projects will fail.
- Leaders also need personal support systems. They need them to stay focused on using the skills of self-mastery when their egos, stress, and the demands of other parts of their lives would distract them.
The Challenges of Building Support Systems
The importance of building and maintaining support systems just makes sense. However, developing support systems seems to put us considerably outside our comfort zones. Here are three challenges we have to the intentional use of support systems:
Cultural Belief Systems
Our society has a strong emphasis on individual freedom and strength — “You can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!” This belief, however, restricts our willingness to ask for support. If you are really good enough, you can do it by yourself. In the world of organizations, individual effort garners more reward than teamwork and supporting others.
Asking for support gets little recognition. More often than not, we seek growth and advancement independent of our team or organizational unit.
We’re taught that anything is possible and if we just work hard enough, we will succeed. We’re not taught that there are severe limits to how much we can do by ourselves. Nor are we taught that the best results will come about through supporting others and being supported by others.
It is easy to understand our aversion to seeking support. They did not teach us to seek support. From grade school, the Western education system increasing focuses independent academic proficiency. High school and college years bring about an increasing demand for independent performance. It created an atmosphere of competition and rivalry among peers.
We strive for individuality. We base our sense of self on our unique skills and capabilities. We’re not taught that the path to success is through collaborative and supportive relationships.
The vast majority of our education emphasizes individual effort, with only a token amount of group work required. Teachers and professors often discourage group work and teaming. They prioritize preventing plagiarism and cheating over promoting support for significant achievement.
University classrooms allow and even encourage adversarial discussions and debates. This reinforces the idea that success is a personal achievement. Grading on a curve rewards those with the highest grades while disciplining those with lesser grades. We’re taught that our peers are our competitors. If you succeed, then I cannot. Ivy League institutions accept only so many.
Some educational environments emphasize cooperation and encourage support. They follow the theories of reformists like John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner, and Horace Mann. Still, that leaves most of us with little or no advocacy to build or use support systems.
Many of us perceive seeking support or asking for help as a sign of weakness, causing concern that others will perceive us negatively if we ask for help. The higher up the organizational ladder one goes or the greater one’s claim to expertise, the more we are supposed to already know.
It’s “lonely at the top” is a moan I’ve heard from many high-level clients. Managers at any level are often reluctant to admit to their employees they don’t know everything. They make asking for or accepting help when offered difficult.
Many leaders believe doing so would reveal their vulnerabilities to others who might take advantage. Building personal support systems of trusted friends and colleagues is a powerful antidote. We are often willingly support others but are too reluctant to accept support. However, leaders need sturdy support systems if they are to withstand the many stresses of being a leader.
We fear losing our mythical independence to which we have attached to our self-esteem. We want to prove to ourselves and to others we can place our mark on the world all by ourselves. If we ask for support, we would document that we couldn’t do “it” by ourselves. Any time we seek support, our self-esteem is vulnerable to our own self-derision.
I once had a great idea about establishing a wisdom center where folks could come seeking the wisdom of themselves and the center’s staff. I shared this idea with Don Klein, my friend and mentor, who suggested that I put together a small group to help me think it through.
I was appalled at such a suggestion! To put together such a group would mean having to deal with folks who would want to mess with my idea, bend it into something I would hardly recognize! Then they would want to twist the implementation process I had in mind beyond recognition! I would lose control of my brilliant idea! Why in the world would I want to do that? Everything would be a lot easier if I did it by myself!
My “great idea” disappeared into the enormous maw of inaction, where many great ideas wind up when we do not allow the support and energy of others. To repeat: no person alone has or will accomplish anything of any significance. We may lose control of a great idea, and maybe that loss will generate an even better idea that will bear fruit when massaged and synergized by the support of others.
Of particular interest to leaders of organizations is the difficulty we have asking for help with human systems. An engineer at W. L. Gore and Associates said to me once, “If my car is making an unusual noise, I’m pretty quick to get the support of my mechanic to do something about it.
However, our human systems make all kinds of unhealthy noises which we ignore to our detriment.” We are loath to ask for help when our marriages, families, and friendships are making the unsavory sounds to hostility.
We too willingly to accept that problems in our human systems are inevitable and uncorrectable. Perhaps we don’t know who can help. Maybe we underestimate the consequences of inaction. Teams, organizations, families, and friends stay problematic when they don’t ask for support.
Leaders must help their teams and their support systems to collaborate, cooperate, and build consensus. They can do none of those alone. Those that succeed will have helped their organizations accomplish and exceed their goals.
Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems
Michael Broom is an organization psychologist of 45 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.