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Why Asking for Help is a Strength, Not a Weakness

Executive Summary

Standing just 4-feet tall, former president of the Caterpillar Foundation, Michele Sullivan, has always been at the mercy of another person for many daily tasks associated with living.

  • Her small stature has taught her big life lessons, however, including the reality that asking for help is a sign of strength.
  • Admitting you need help is an action that isn’t usually appreciated in the corporate setting. But, Sullivan found that the philosophy of sharing and giving help opened many doors for the Caterpillar Foundation under her leadership.
  • Although independence is celebrated in Western culture, Sullivan urges individuals and corporations to consider the feats that could be achieved when parties work together toward a common cause.

If you’re older than seven, you’re probably taller than me. Ironically, always being the shorter one has given me some legitimate advantages. For starters, my shorter vantage point has forced me to look up to others my entire life. While it can be intimidating, even today, this permanent physical posture has taught me that the most powerful relational posture I can have with others is to look up to them rather than down on them.

Learning to expand my view of others has been the most potent lesson in my life. It’s allowed me to see the world through a more cooperative lens.

The Solo Win Is Rare

We get heroism wrong when we paint a picture of someone who overcomes every challenge and reaches the pinnacle of potential solo, in a vacuum, with only his or her own resources. Yes, redemption is one of the most beautiful stories on the planet. When a person who wasn’t supposed to succeed does anyway, we celebrate him. When a person is dealt a bad hand and adversity is forced on her, and she becomes great in spite of it, we rejoice. And in both cases, we should.

But we have to peel back the layers of those stories to see that neither the fighter nor the overcomer ever does it alone. And we have to be willing to acknowledge that a hero having help doesn’t detract from the beauty and inspiration of what he or she has done.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened on a massive scale.

For those of us living in America, independence is part of our country’s brand. Every Fourth of July, we celebrate it. Our nation’s history carries stories of individuals who stood for what they believed in, resisted challengers, and won the day on the back of their own resources. At least that’s how we characterize them in many books and movies. The reality we can miss in the story of America is that we didn’t seek independence from one another; we sought a new, united opportunity to thrive together. Seen in that light, independence is something worth fighting for.

But it’s not mutually exclusive of interdependence. That’s where we get off track as adults.

Asking for Help is a Corporate Faux Pas

At Caterpillar, I wanted to show my bosses and coworkers that I belonged not only as a teammate but also as a person who was worthy of their trust. My inclination was to let my work speak for itself and to get the job done, no questions asked. But this inclination battled against a higher principle: that asking for help was a strength, not a weakness. The trouble was that in my new environment, asking for help was not necessarily seen as a strength. Unfortunately, it rarely is.

In places such as shops and supermarkets, asking someone to reach a can of beans for me or grab a shirt off the rack rarely rubs people the wrong way, particularly in places where employees are paid to serve the customer. However, in a corporate environment, there are often unspoken rules about being the “squeaky wheel” or the “weak link.” Inside the muscular walls of Caterpillar, everyone worked to repel those labels. And trust me: I didn’t want anyone to think those things of me either. I also knew I’d need help more often than most, even if it was to reach a file folder from the supply closet. I hoped my work overpowered any notion that I was a weak link.

Sometimes success takes being the giver. Sometimes success takes being the receiver. We live in a world where the givers get the accolades. I’ve learned that while it might feel better to give than to receive, it takes more strength to ask for help than to give it. This is especially the case in the working world, where we are expected to own our work and not disrupt others from theirs. I certainly understand the spirit behind the expectation, but it often goes too far and prohibits us from achieving our highest effectiveness together.

The truth is, I could not get through a day of my life without asking for help. A sampling of objects I cannot reach:

  • elevator buttons for high floors
  • the overhead compartment on airplanes
  • the latch in airplane bathrooms (as you know)
  • groceries above the second shelf
  • dead bolts
  • anything you set on my car roof or under the windshield wipers, or on my car hood

When I rejected living on the fringe of society, I chose to spend my life with a constant level of reliance on others. It might sound like that makes me needy. It’s the opposite. The biggest life we can live is not an independent one— it’s an interdependent one.

“Interdependence is both a fact of life and an orientation to life,” wrote Dr. Miki Kashtan, cofounder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication and consultant at the Center for Efficient Collaboration. “Whether or not we consciously engage with the interdependence of life it continues to happen. . . . Whether we like it or not, whether we know about it or not, all things are interdependent.”

Interdependence as an Element of Corporate Culture

When I took over the leadership of the Caterpillar Foundation in 2011, I wanted to bring this same philosophy to the work we did. I was once asked by the Atlantic how we manage to collaborate with such a wide array of other organizations—from Feeding America and the Nature Conservancy to the American Red Cross and—and my initial answer was that we have to if we want to accomplish big initiatives. How we work together is another story.

To spur legitimate entrepreneurial opportunities in impoverished countries or supply clean water in desolate climates, it takes more than one person with a big checkbook or a big idea. Part of the criteria we established for selecting any partner charity is its willingness and ability to foster additional alliances with other nonprofits as well as private ventures and government organizations. This is what I call the three-legged stool because when multiple parties are brought into the philosophy of sharing resources, the parties are also brought into the philosophy that acknowledging our need for one another is what upholds us.

Sharing is Caring

When I was a newborn baby in my parents’ home, I was helpless. So were you. We were completely dependent on our moms and dads or other caregivers to keep us alive. As we got older, we were given more responsibility and taught that we could depend on ourselves to get important tasks done. When we became adults, most of us felt the immediate pressure to become completely independent, whether directly through our parents’ actions or indirectly through cultural expectations. But is the goal of adulthood to be wholly self-sufficient?

Haven’t we seen that staunch self-sufficiency in adulthood leads to as many problems as helpless dependence in adulthood?

Despite all the attention we give to individualism, one of life’s most powerful realities is that we thrive because of others, not in spite of them. It’s easy to forget, but this reality never changes as you grow from newborn to adult. The sooner we collectively grasp this, the sooner we access the full scope of resources all around us. And the sooner we see the treasure we possess that can be given to others.

Adapted with permission from Looking Up: How a Different Perspective Turns Obstacles into Advantages by Michele Sullivan, copyright Michele Sullivan.

Bring It Home

I’m a bit of a prepper. Not like “bunker in the woods” prepper, but certainly “canned food for a few months” prepper. You could say it’s because I lack trust in people and systems outside of my control. Sometimes I wear my independence like a badge, proud to display the quality and honored when someone describes me as such. Other times, I wish I was better at asking for help, especially in the workplace.

Are you the employee who can’t seem to ever complete a to-do list because for every item you check off, you add three more? Do you feel a twinge of imposter syndrome when you encounter a new task? You probably research the subject matter for hours, or even days so you can conquer it and achieve some futile victory. But then you realize that you wasted time and resources to do so when you could have received help from someone already imbued with the requisite knowledge. As Sullivan has learned, and many of us need to recognize, asking for help is often more productive than going at a project alone. How will you start working towards an interdependence in your professional life? Share your plans in the comments! ~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Michele Sullivan

Michele is unforgettable- from a young person born with a very rare type of dwarfism, who, in spite of being looked down upon by others, learned to look up: to lead with an elevated view of others, a philosophy that landed her at the helm of one of the world's most prominent philanthropy organizations. During her 30 year career, she held various globally influential leadership positions at Caterpillar Inc., an American fortune 100 company.

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1 comment

  • Recommend Looking Up to everyone. Should be required reading in our schools as it certainly would influence & help direct our young people in a positive direction. Loved your quote Seeing is Doing ! Still trying to look up @ every opportunity. Thanks Michele.

    Dora Seth

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