To ask is not weakness. To ask is human.
One of my deepest flaws as a young leader was my pathological inability to ask for help.
I always believed that to be a leader in anything, you had to be an expert on everything. You had to avoid asking the “stupid” questions, and you had to do everything yourself. This attitude took me far early in my career, but it would soon come back to haunt me.
I grew up with a chip on my shoulder.
Even if none of this was necessarily true, I always created these beliefs for myself (à la Michael Jordan) simply to fuel my drive to succeed.
I grew up in a household that forced me to be hyper-independent. My parents were not a consistent part of my life, so my grandparents raised me for most of my childhood. My grandfather’s expectations of excellence permeated every aspect of my maturation, and a culture of “don’t ask questions” was ingrained into my DNA at an early age.
Years of this dynamic had its benefits. I finished in the top 5% of my high school class, got into a prestigious private university, and worked my way up to assistant manager at a menswear store by my sophomore year.
The best part about this? I was doing it all by myself, just as I was brought up to do. By age 20, I felt unstoppable. But it’s clear now that all these early successes served as nothing more than ego-inflation—a trojan horse that would facilitate many hard lessons to come.
When I was tasked with opening a brand new 6,000 square foot restaurant, it was the single biggest responsibility anyone had ever entrusted me with.
I was in charge of all operations: ordering equipment, finding the best contracts with suppliers, interviewing, hiring, and training employees, and more. I didn’t have an assistant manager, and the owner rarely ever came around to visit. In essence, I was the de facto owner, controlling everything from the locks on the doors, to scheduling, to food preparation.
The owner trusted me. I was doing everything myself. My ego loved it.
Soon, the weight of the restaurant became too much for me to bear alone. The owner, who I was on excellent terms with for most of my time with the company, began to question me. At one point, he even went as far as saying I was “in over my head.”
While I thought I had been doing everything right, working harder than everyone else, and building the new restaurant towards the vision we set for it, I was missing one core ingredient of good leadership that I never learned growing up: the ability to set aside ego and ask for help.
The owner and I clashed over this difference in philosophy. I was doing everything right from a business perspective—driving revenue, training employees well, keeping food and labor costs down, so why was there a problem? I had forgotten about the owner’s 30 years of restaurant experience compared to my 2.
The owner’s trust in me began to fade because I never communicated to him what I needed. Instead of asking for help, I often took the long way around. I never asked for help because I saw it as a sign of weakness. And once that kind of trust is gone, it’s hard to earn back.
Good leaders know and understand the jobs and responsibilities of those they lead. But what they don’t do is pursue the impossible task of trying to know and do everything themselves.
Great leaders replace their need for expertise with trust. They surround themselves with experts in specific areas and trust those experts to relay timely and accurate information. They listen to those experts, and make informed decisions based on that information in order to steer the ship in the right direction.
Football coaches don’t know as much about physical fitness as their players do.
A construction foreman isn’t able to operate a crane as effectively as the guy who operates cranes all day.
Restaurant managers don’t know how to make a chicken marsala dish as well as the cooks.
If they don’t know something, great leaders ask. Subordinates will feel empowered by the fact that their jobs are seen as difficult. Superiors will feel that they can trust you because you are doing whatever it takes to become better at your job.
There is no gold medal for being hyper-independent.
There is no prize for doing everything yourself.
Don’t let ego impede your success as a leader. It’s an important lesson I wish I learned early in life, and one that I’m still learning to this day.
To ask is not weakness. To ask is human.
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