Opinion: Successful leaders admit when they need help
Popular culture doesn’t necessarily do a great job of creating positive role models for business, does it?
From Gordon Gecko to Jordan Belfort, Sir Alan Sugar to Donald Trump, Dragons Den to The Apprentice, the message seems to be pretty consistent. Be infallible. The most successful leaders know the answers and have them ready whenever a challenge comes up.
Leadership is all about force of personality and being better than everyone else around you.
Strength is power.
But is that true? And is the best example being set?
I must admit that the constant reinforcement of this dog eat dog, winner takes all approach to business has led to me turning away from these shows. I believe that they send out completely the wrong message and it’s not one that resonates with my experience across my business career of over 20 years.
Rather than leaders knowing all of the answers, the best know how to build the right relationships and develop the network around them so that they can find the best solution to any challenge that arises. And they develop better performing businesses as a result.
Humility drives great leaders. They surround themselves with people who are technically better than them and have complementary skills in a range of different areas and focus on bringing the group together, creating an entity far more powerful than any individual within it.
They know their limits and are willing to share them. Great leaders recognise that they can’t be masters in every area of their business, so seek the best experts in each area and get their insights and ideas to find increasingly better solutions.
One of the great buzzwords of recent years, and probably more relevant in both business and personal life over the last year than ever before, has been ‘resilience’. On the face of it, resilience and vulnerability seem to be at opposite ends of the scale – you either toughen up and work through whatever life throws at you or you complain about what is going on and admit that you can’t cope.
But that misunderstands the true nature of vulnerability. For me, vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness, and enables us to be more resilient, not less. After all, if resilience is about achieving your objectives despite the obstacles thrown in your path, then surely availing yourself of the support, expertise and experience of others is going to make that easier.
Asking for help does not betray an inability to cope or weakness in any other way. Instead, it portrays a strong mind, humility and an ability to access the resources needed to find the best solution.
It’s easy for leaders to worry about the impression their staff have of them if they don’t lead with clarity and purpose. And that makes sense, it’s important that teams feel confident in the course their leaders set. The mistake lies in thinking that the leader has to know the course in the first place.
Teams look to their leaders to lead but not necessarily to make key decisions in isolation. Great leaders are willing to admit that they don’t know the right answers but they take the steps to find them. That includes involving their teams in seeking the best solution.
Surrounding yourself with the best people means that you can explore a range of options and find the best course. You don’t need to automatically know what to do, what people are looking for is a decision to be made and confidence in that decision. They often appreciate having the opportunity to share their ideas as part of the process.
In fact, admitting vulnerability can often bring people on board. In January 2019 a new research paper was published by Harvard Business School arguing how it benefits successful people to be open about their failures. The team conducting the survey found that openly sharing failure decreased ‘malicious envy’, where people want you to fail, and increased ‘benign envy’, respect and admiration from others.
In addition, it also motivated other people to do better themselves, something that we all need to achieve as genuine leaders.
The research team told me that, "This strategy is especially inspiring for leaders, whose achievements and successes are self-evident but the struggles they overcame to succeed are unobservable unless they share them with their employees."
The message needs to change and organisations accept that vulnerable leaders are the strongest leaders. After all, if leaders can’t accept the benefits of being vulnerable, transparent and open to help, how can they expect their teams to do so?
A failure of leadership to ask for help will spiral through the culture of the organisation, with a lack of collaboration, innovation and effectiveness not far behind. The best leaders admit when they need help because it makes business sense for them to do so.
About Andy Lopata
A specialist in professional relationships and networking for over 20 years, Andy Lopata was called ‘One of Europe’s leading business networking strategists’ by the Financial Times. Andy is President of the Fellows' Community, a two-time board member of the Professional Speaking Association UK & Ireland and a Fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute, as well as a Master of the Institute for Sales Management. Andy is the host of the Connected Leadership podcast and is the author of five books including his latest, “Just Ask: Why Seeking Support is Your Greatest Strength”.
Billionaire Kumar Birla Champions Regional Supply Chains
As the head of the Aditya Birla Group, a US$46bn firm that operates in 36 countries, Kumar Mangalam Birla is no stranger to splashy strategic moves. Yet his recent announcement that he no longer wants to acquire globally distributed supply chains stood out. While many companies have struggled to cope with shipping backlogs, his firm has chosen to pivot and focus on regional networks. Said Birla: ‘We wouldn’t look at a company or a business where you source in one corner of the world and sell in another’.
He cited protectionism, the pandemic, and the limited movement of products and people around the world as ABG’s primary causes of lost profits. And they aren’t alone. Over the past year, 900 of the U.S. and Europe’s biggest IT, defence, and financial services firms have lost an average of US$184mn apiece.
An Era of Global Disruption
Over the past few decades, low shipping rates and rapid delivery times have lulled multinational firms into a false sense of security. In the early 2000s, companies chose to take on significant global supply chain risks in exchange for increased profits. First, it made sense to manufacture higher-value goods, such as electronics, in low-cost regions throughout Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. Second, first-tier suppliers started to outsource the manufacturing of specific components to second-, third-, and even fourth-tiers—leaving supply chains with extremely limited visibility.
So when COVID-19 disruptions struck certain regions, companies were caught unprepared. Usually, these events come few and far between. But over the past ten years, we’ve seen a number of ‘black swan’ events that have thrown the supply chain industry into chaos. Here’s a quick history of the most significant events in recent years, thanks to the MIT Sloan Management Review:
- 2010. China creates export quotas for rare earth elements.
- 2011. The Tōhoku Earthquake hits East Japan; flooding sweeps throughout Thailand.
- 2016-present. Trade wars between the U.S. and China hurt suppliers.
- 2020-present. COVID-19 pandemic shuts down international shipping ports.
Now, Kumar Birla is one of many who want to re-evaluate how we run our supply chains. Though his company has acquired 40+ companies in the last quarter decade, Birla intends to build up local hubs rather than expand operations.
Why Pursue Regionalisation?
Combine Chinese economic dominance, global supply chain vulnerabilities, and major government policy shifts around the world, and you have a storm brewing on the horizon for big multinational firms. As Brookings noted, ‘the biggest risk for trading opportunities in the developing world is growing protectionism in more advanced economies, often dressed up as national security protection’.
Altogether, from the U.S. to the European Union, governments are trying to protect their domestic supply chains, secure adequate stockpiles of materials, and build world-class local networks. Consider Biden’s recent executive order, which seeks to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to home soil, or Japan’s bid to open more memory chip fabrication factories near Tokyo. The Aditya Birla Group intends to react in kind. Said Birla: ‘We’re looking at regionalism as a very big theme’.
Will Others Follow Suit?
In the post-pandemic economy, global businesses must decide whether to expand or contract. On one hand, the Alibaba Group’s Cainiao Smart Logistics Network recently launched a direct flight between Hong Kong, China, and Lagos, Nigeria. On the other, the Japanese government is desperate to make its chip manufacturing domestic. Indeed, as two supply chain strategies diverge in a post-pandemic world, the one businesses take may make all the difference.
Yet Birla is confident that regionalisation is the right call. According to his words at the Qatar Economic Forum, even necessary cross-border transactions should be smaller in scope. And as the Bloomberg Billionaires Index now lists his net wealth at US$10.4bn, up 52% from 2020, he may have the cash to test his theories out. ‘Regional hubs, regional presence, regional employment, catering to regional demand’, he stated. ‘We’re a global company rooted in local economics’.