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Ask, Don’t Assume! (Open and Closed Systems)

Healthy Leaders

Ask, Don’t Assume! (Open and Closed Systems)

Adrian PeiAdrian Pei

In the third chapter (“Asking for Help”) of my new leadership guide, Facing the Demands of Leadership, I write about the idea of “asking rather than assuming.”

So often we might need help on a work project but never reach out to others – because we assume they wouldn’t have the time or motivation.

This was my mindset when I struggled through personal and family challenges a number of years back. I desperately needed friends and a community but I assumed they were too busy or had enough on their plate already. I didn’t want to “burden” them with my own problems.

But I was wrong and I learned that my friends wanted to be there for me! They just didn’t know what I was going through. I wrote an article about this a couple of years ago for Inheritance magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

My wife finally challenged me one night by asking, “How will your friends know your struggles and what you need if you don’t tell them what’s going on?” She encouraged me to call my best friends and simply ask them if we could talk once a month.

It was hard to pick up the phone but that one phone call started an informal group of four friends who have talked every month for the past four years despite being in different continents and time zones. Because we are so regularly in touch it only takes minutes to catch up on our lives and we have a safe place to email when we have a hard day or urgent prayer need.

With this group I’ve learned to take risks in sharing my deepest fears, feelings, and insecurities. I’ve let my friends truly know me and they have done the same for me.

What I’ve since learned is that there are two modes we get into as leaders ‒ closed and open. I was “closed,” or stuck, in my personal and family struggles. I wouldn’t let anything or anybody get in so everything stayed the same. I was a “closed system.” But when my wife broke through my defenses, it opened up my system and brought new life and possibilities to me.

This is a pattern that you may notice all around you. Maybe it’s a large company that’s been stuck in “old” ways of thinking and cannot seem to envision the future. Maybe it’s a family or marriage relationship that continues to get into the same patterns of arguments like an endless negative cycle. Regardless, closed systems tend to stagnate and suffer in their performance unless there’s an injection of life from the outside. Maybe that’s a younger leader who comes into the company with fresh ideas. Maybe it’s a counselor that a family or couple seeks out to help them break out of their destructive cycles.

Dr. Henry Cloud uses the example of the second law of thermodynamics to explain open and closed systems in Integrity. He points out that according to this law of the universe, things “left to their own” naturally die, become more disorganized, gather rust, and so on. However, when a system connects to a source of energy and purpose from the outside, it can get better and not worse.

That is why asking for help is such a critical skill in leadership. It’s actually not a sign of weakness, but strength ‒ because we don’t naturally grow or gather strength on our own, but with the input and influence of others. That’s the natural order of things … from the moment we entered the world as helpless babies ‒ completely dependent on others for food, warmth, and shelter! Now that we’re older, our challenge is to not be passive but active in asking for help so that we can continue to grow and mature as leaders. We need to learn to ask for help more as leaders. We need to ask rather than assume. Try it this week!

If you’re interested in learning more or to get some practice in “asking for help,” be sure to check out my new leadership guide Facing the Demands of Leadership. Thanks for reading!