Leaders: When you have a goal or project to achieve, ask who not how.

“If I had to do it over again, I’d ask for help.” Anonymous

I wish I had read Dan Sullivan’s book, Who Not How, fifty years ago when I started my career. It’s a simple but significant message: When you have a project to do or a goal to achieve, don’t ask “How do I achieve this task or goal?” Rather ask, “Who can help me achieve this?”

I’ve always been a high achiever with a good work ethic, which is admirable; but often it’s been counterproductive—I work hard, but sometimes I don’t work smart. Even to this day, when I identify something that needs to be done, my first thought is often, “How can this be done?” I may even take it one step further and think, “How can this be done and when can I do it?” So instead of asking for help, I do it myself. For instance, I have a hard time paying someone to do house repairs that I can do myself (I still trim my own shrubs), but at times that’s not the best use of my time and energy. 

This mentality was set early in my life. I grew up in a low-income family and we didn’t have money to hire work done, so we did everything ourselves. This has been a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that I’ve learned how to do a lot of things myself; I’ve learned how to get things done (process thinking), and I’ve saved a lot of money.   

But there’s downside: I tend to do things that I should delegate to others. If I delegated more often, I would have more time to focus on things that only I can do, and, with professionals doing the job, the result is usually superior.  

I continue to wrestle with the financial aspect. If I had unlimited funds, of course I would ask who instead of how, and simply contract others to do the work. But I don’t have unlimited funds.

Can any of you, my readers, offer a solution to this conundrum? Do you struggle with the same thing? 

I should probably heed the advice of author Greg McKeown: “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everything, can you make your highest contribution toward the things that really matter.” 

20 Replies to “Leaders: When you have a goal or project to achieve, ask who not how.”

  1. You have a lot of company when it comes to this, and I head the list. Interestingly , we’re from similar early life backgrounds, and I agree that might be the origin of the problem. When I’ve paid attention to why I don’t ask for help, my “findings” include the following: it’s my OCD, my expectations of perfection, “it’s just as easy for me to do it”, “they won’t do it as well as I’d prefer”, feeling I’m imposing on someone for something I can do, and “if they help me, then I owe them a return favor”.

    Four things have motivated me to ask for help more often:
    1. Joining with others gets a better outcome and creates friendships.
    2. Invariably, I’ll mess up the project so badly, I either have to buy a new one or call the repair man anyway. So, it’s actually cheaper to get help and not nearly as embarrassing as having to admit to another man that I messed it up.
    3. Karen encourages me to get help. I think her motivations include not having to be in the same house with me as I work through the frustrations of having screwed up yet again. (eg, “Berenstain Dad syndrome”)
    4. I’m helping the economy by hiring someone who really needs the money.

    Having said that, I still prefer to do it myself. Maybe the problem is I’m really a loner. If I involve others then I have to put my book down, shower, dress up, be cordial, think harder, be tactful when someone really has a dumb idea and similar things any Christian should do normally. Hmmmm. Maybe I’m just not as good a guy as I think I am. 🤔🙄🥺

    1. Harvey, thank you for a well thought out response. I resonate with all that you have said. Interestingly, I would not have guessed this about you. I knew you as the CEO of a huge hospital in which you delegated well. But perhaps in retirement we all need to be more involved in day-to-day events. Thanks for our friendship. Don

  2. Don: This was a great reminder. It also applies to the ability to delegate tasks to your team. We have a saying at my office that helps me. “Let’s keep everyone working at the top of their licensure.” When we do that, not only can I accomplish things only I can do, but others on the team are trying new things and enriching their skills.

    1. Debbie, I’ve never heard that phrase; it says a lot. A similar phrase is “only do what only you can do.” I admire the good work that you have accomplished in your career.

  3. Don, my background and situation sound similar, including being raised with a strong work ethic. Widowed young (31), my mother was so very capable in working an outside job and raising us six kids after our father’s accidental death. Memories continue to guide me! I DO agree about paying others, if you can, to handle some tasks that would free you up for other things you enjoy and consider a better use of time. I’ve considered my husband’s suggestion to have someone in to clean periodically, but I take pride in our home, and things like vacuuming ARE one more form of exercise. I think we have to weigh choices in each life season.

    1. Thanks, Sharon, for sharing your thoughts. Our backgrounds, particularly family of origin experiences, make an indelible impact on our lives that is difficult to change – for better or for worse. It saddens me to hear of your father’s premature passing. How old were you when he died?

  4. I can relate to your situation as I often find myself in a bind when it comes to asking for help. On top of that, I have been so used to doing things by myself just to save some money. Coming from a family with limited resources, I learned to do things on my own. It has both pros and cons to it. Someday, I wish I have enough to start getting things done by means of delegation or outsourcing tasks.

    1. Joby, thanks for responding. As I get older (I’m 69), more often I’m having to pay for services, simply because I can’t do some of the physical work; so age is helping me delegate 🙂

  5. I can really relate to your self confession of thinking first How and When. I also relate to the financial aspect.
    I learned a lot of this from my dad as I grew up. It is the old Horatio Alger story of pulling oneself up by ones boot straps. It has been both a blessing and a detriment to my ministry.
    I could get a theological but it is helpful to remember we were created by God to be helpmates. A part of the answer to the question about financial challenges is to maybe think about creating a separation between personal and professional. Maybe for financial challenges be more willing to pay for help. For personal situations pull in a favor from a brother, sister, friend, in-law…
    Like I said, I struggle with this myself so my advice is really advice to myself.

    1. Galen, thanks for responding. Interestingly, I often “ride the brakes” on spending at the church where I serve. Which at times has saved us money but at other incidences, has slowed things down. I still struggle with achieving balance.

  6. Professionally, as a global leader for a large manufacturer, continual innovation is absolutely necessary not only to win in the marketplace, but to beat the competitive record. Those innovative ideas rise, in part, from those working in the trenches across cultures, bubbled-up to those who can organize and make sense of it demonstrating viability and return on investment. As a leader we need to rely on those we lead in our organizations to vet and strategically plan the “how”. Leaders inspire, cultivate and reward this practice.

    1. Jim, well said and worth saying. As leaders, we can actually stymie progress by getting involved in the “how” aspect of our organization. I like your last line – Leaders inspire, cultivate and reward this practice.
      Are you retired or still working?

  7. Hi Don,
    I can relate to this problem as I was raised in a large family. I was the oldest of 8 children (I am now 66 years young). I had to help out my Mother a lot while growing up since my Father was in the Air Force and and was away quite a bit not to mention we did not have a lot of money either..

    When I grew up and had my own family I never thought about asking for help since I only had 3 children. It wasn’t until one of my daughter’s, who was in college at the time, was trying to help me and became very frustrated with me b/c I was being stubborn, not letting her help me and trying to do everything myself after a divorce.

    She looked at me and said with tears in her eyes, “Mom, why are you trying to steal my blessings?” I said, “What?” And she clarified her statement by saying that she felt she got blessed by being able to help me and since I was not letting her – she felt I was stealing her blessings. Wow, this stopped me cold and I have let others help me ever since b/c I too enjoy helping others and feeling blessed when I do.

    I worked in the medical profession for several years after my divorce and related this story to almost every one of my patients b/c most of them didn’t want to bother their family or friends by asking for help when needed.

    After I relayed my story to them and assured them their family and friends wanted to help and would be blessed for being able to help, most of them then saw the benefit to asking for help so they were much more willing to ask.

    May you too always be open to helping others be blessed by asking for help.

    In His Love and blessings,

    Mary Ferguson

    1. Mary, thank you for taking the time to tell your story. I am touched by your experiences and perspective. The anecdote about your daughter encouraging you to receive was poignant. Oh…if we only had life to do over again…

  8. PRAISE the LORD for this discussion, Don, and using you to start it! I’m 75, and identify with all the sides of each of these examples you have posted here! Amazingly, my Dad and Mom were both Great delegators, at home, work, and Church, being Leaders who got a lot done, but who also did a lot themselves, very quick at multiple tasks. I have always been slow and methodical, so, while I always have gotten a lot done, it has always taken much longer to complete most things, with few exceptions. Unfortunately, it seems that while I have asked the LORD for help in many ways, that How I can get something done, is the dominant theme, rather Who else! Fortunately, HE has sent others, even when I haven’t asked specifically, and enabled me to get help when I either didn’t think I could afford it, or actually couldn’t, which was usually the case! HALLELUJAH! AMEN! SHALOM! AGAPE!

    1. Frank, thanks for taking the time to respond and telling your story. It sounds like you’ve had a good and steady 75 years of living. Keep living fully; age is just a number. Take care, Don

  9. I find myself doing the same thing, for many of the same reasons. I am a small church pastor therefore, have limited income. So, if we have to hire it done, it usually just doesn’t get done. The same thing goes for the church, if I can do it then I do in order to save the church monet, with the thought that they can either keep paying me or they can pay a professional to fix their issues. So, I’m the preacher, plumber, computer repair tech, electrician, etc.. Growing up a farmers son probably didn’t help my leaning on my own resources too much. It would be nice to be able to ask who? But, maybe this is just the way life is for most people.

    1. Shawn, I feel your pain. I’m sorry you must do so much work at your church. Would it help to have multiple committees that are responsible for some of those tasks? Don

  10. I had the ” How can I get this done and when can I do it” syndrome. However, a lady who I was on a mission with in Peru once said to me; “If you don’t ask for help you are depriving someone of their Christian duty of helping others.” Well, whenever I am about to start a project I think of what she said and I look for help. I admit I am not at the 100% mark but I am getting better at it.

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