Learning How To Ask For Help
One of my favorite shows of the 80s was the family dramedy Family Ties. From the theme song to the set design, I can remember so much of the show with pinpoint accuracy. Though I was young, I was taken by how the show could make me laugh and make me think. Never too silly or too heavy-handed, Family Ties was simply a well written, well acted show in an television era that featured Alf and Small Wonder.
Led by star-in-the-making Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, the cast was often supported by guest stars, many of whom were unknowns at the time but who would go on to boast big time Hollywood careers. In fact, one such guest star has had a touch more that moderate success on the silver screen: Tom Hanks.
Before Splash, Big, and Forrest Gump, Hanks was Alex’s Uncle Ned, a once prominent executive who had a devastating fall from grace thanks to his alcohol addiction. Though he only appeared in a couple of episodes, one such episode (“Say Uncle”) has stayed with me some 35 years later.
Fox and Hanks perform a brilliant dance during this scene in which they blend zingers with painful revelation. Immediately, I associated Uncle Ned with my own grandfather, a loving, thoughtful man capable of providing great joy. When he wasn’t drinking. Like Uncle Ned, my grandfather, affectionately named Barney (I was his Fred), had things in his life he wasn’t capable of working through without alcohol. He just needed help.
That’s the point, though. We all need help.
I’d like to think that I would have arrived at this conclusion without the help of a television show, but I do know that seeing someone else, though fictional, grapple with real-life problems helped me plan for how to handle my own.
As a young teacher, I was woefully in need of help. All the time. I may have hid it well from the masses, but those teachers who supported me during those early days know how often I came to them. Tired or frustrated, elated or contemplative, I went to my mentors with frightening regularity. Each time, they listened, offered advice or feedback, or, in some cases, bought me a much needed beer.
Now, as a still-new leader, I am borrowing from Uncle Ned and Barney, albeit minus the alcohol, all the time. I ask my teachers for help with everything from scheduling to decorating. I ask my secretary for help with everything from fire drills to purchase orders. I ask my leadership mentors for help with everything from discipline issues to parent communication.
Despite my all-too-comfortable approach to asking for help, I do understand the plight of Uncle Ned and Barney. At what point do we finally admit we need help? How much have we tried to take on ourselves before asking for help? It’s a delicate fulcrum, indeed, but in order to lead with empathy and grace, we have to recognize and accept our own limitations.
We need to ask for help.