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As the Cascading Leadership programme ends, we wanted to think about what we have learnt about ‘helping’. The Cascading Leadership programme was designed to support and connect experienced voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector leaders wanting to help (by taking up the role of ‘consultant’), with others in the sector seeking help (who took up the role of ‘partner’). The programme took the form of a collaborative inquiry, to develop a practice anchored in the assumption that both helper and the helped require cognitive, emotional and behavioural dexterity; and that simply telling people, faced with complexity, what to do is insufficient help.

Early on in the programme, the author shared a note from his supervisor after a difficult session.

The note opened a conversation about ‘helping’. Does this mean relieving the other person of their anxiety, to make them feel better? Or asking questions to enquire into what is making them feel anxious and uncertain?

'Suddenly you find yourself in a position of a chief executive. It is not surprising that you feel panicky and sometimes overwhelmed. I say, ‘find yourself’, but of course you did have sufficient confidence in yourself to accept the job… what do you make of that?'

People in the role of consultant noticed how often they wanted to share their know-how. To make things better for their partners; meanwhile understanding that simply telling people what was wrong and what to do was not always helpful; and that their helpful interventions could say more about their own need to feel useful.

Consultants met with the programme directors in between sessions with their partners. Our purpose was to create a safe place for consultants to talk about and review how they were ‘showing up’ in role. We encouraged them to think about their own thinking and feeling. To notice what they were ‘tuned’ to notice and what they may not notice as they listened.

'We encouraged them to think about their own thinking and feeling. To notice what they were ‘tuned’ to notice and what they may not notice as they listened.'

These conversations helped people notice and manage the anxiety of being in the unfamiliar role of consultant. We knew they were skillful leaders in their organisations and thought they would hear stories from their partners that were unique yet distractingly familiar. Both consultant and partner shared the VCSE context. How this uniqueness and similarity was to be deployed became an important theme in the exploration of ‘helping’.

What emerged was a practice committed to helping the partner tell their story while noticing one’s own associations and connections as the story unfolded. When consultants combined leadership know-how; attention to their own reflexive deliberations; and formulation of open questions; their partners reported them as helpful.

Partners valued help to explore their situation and not be rescued by ‘advice’. Help that offered lines of enquiry, anchored in their story, while not telling them what to do or think. Help that assumed they remained responsible for their own issues. Help that did not make them a passive recipient of another’s ‘expertise’.

Consultants worked hard to create and sustain a safe enough space for their partner, who may have feared sounding stupid. This ‘psychological safety’ created something in short supply –  time to think1. Time for their partner to think about their issue, their actions, the behaviour of others and crucially what they might do differently back at work. The consultants were developing a practice described by Edgar Schein2.

'Humble inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.'

(Schein 2013, p2)

Schein argues leadership is exercised, regardless of role when you can bear to face what you do not know and the humility and skill to ask others, who may know, in a way that does not diminish one’s own sense of authority. That not knowing, waiting, is not a weakness but the behaviour of a competent leader and consultant, who is capable of listening, and enabling another to talk.

What was helpful for our leaders as helpers was also useful for our leaders seeking help. Being helped is a role that requires humility and skill to use the space to talk about what you do not know. Ignorance, uncertainty and error are undervalued in the leadership literature and given the complexity people work in, they are inevitable3. Wise leaders are prepared to face the facts of their situation while not surrendering hope; they are less surprised when things do not go plan; they remain curious about why that may be the case in this situation4.

The Cascading Leadership programme was a productive endeavour between VCSE leaders and The King’s Fund that raised important insights and questions about what it is to be helpful and be helped, when already a capable leader. That it can be hard to ask and receive help; and how quickly we can reinforce any sense of our incompetence by thinking that asking for help is yet a further manifestation of a lack of skill and leadership.

The programme embodied the assumption that we are all safer when leaders themselves feel safe enough to talk about their uncertainties; and know the person listening, will not judge but help to create space to pause, think and plan.

The Cascading Leadership programme has been funded by The National Lottery Community Fund. The content for this blog was created by The King’s Fund with no involvement of the sponsor. To read an independent review of the programme click here.