Look for the Helpers
We feel their presence, but don’t always see it or acknowledge it
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” — John Donne, 1624
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It feels good to be independent, doesn’t it?
To look at a project or opportunity, assess your abilities and past achievements, and think, “Yeah, I can do this. I don’t need any help.”
In reality, none of us achieves what we do or gets where we are completely on our own.
From childhood on, we look for ways to be free of the confines and constraints that others put on us.
I remember a time — I must have been all of five or six years old — when I so frustrated by the rules my parents made, I announced that I was running away (haven’t we all had a moment like this?) to my grandparents. Because all grandparents seem to operate without the same rules and restrictions of parents.
My mom sat and watched as I packed my little suitcase, trying to contain her dueling feelings of amusement and anguish. As I exited the door in a huff, I headed to the end of the driveway before abruptly stopping. I turned around, my anger fading into desperation, and said,
“I don’t know how to get there. Can you give me directions?”
In our fervid desire for autonomy—at any stage of life—we eventually realize that we still need each other if we want to succeed. Humans are a social species. Even the most valiant among us cannot survive alone, nor have we arrived at our current circumstances without the help of others.
In the ancient world (and even in the modern world, until relatively recently), the power of women was through association with powerful male family members. Women only came to power during a crisis: an invasion or when a royal family was depleted of its male members.
Such was the case of the thousands of “Rosie the Riveters” in World War II, who took over the manufacturing jobs when their fathers, brothers, uncles, and husbands were called to the front lines. They answered the call.
Such was the case of Boudicca (alternatively spelled Boudicca or Boadicea) in ancient Britain.
The Romans first invaded the island in 43, and Boudicca’s husband Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, was an independent ally of Rome. The Iceni lived in what is present-day Norfolk, to the northeast of London.
Prasutagus died and left his kingdom jointly to Rome and to his two daughters in his will. According to Tacitus in The Annals, this was
“an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary – so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war.”
Boudicca was flogged, her two daughters raped, and the leading men of the Iceni had their land stripped from them.
“Did they hear me, would they listen, did they pity me supplicating?” — Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1864
So, driven not only by the need for personal vengeance, but the need to make it clear that her people wanted independence, Boudicca led a rebellion against the Romans from 60–61. The result was some 70,000 to 80,000 Romans and Roman-supporting Britons killed, before Boudicca’s forces suffered defeat and she poisoned herself.
The lesson here is not only this fierce fight for independence and Boudicca’s ability to work with the Iceni toward a mutual goal, but also this: given her defeat, Boudicca’s story might be lost to history if it weren’t for those who took the time to call out her heroism.
Those like Tacitus, who lived 100 years later, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote the poem “Boadicea” 1800 years later, or Thomas Thornycroft, whose statue Boadicea and Her Daughters was placed on Westminster Bridge in 1902.
The last two of these—Tennyson and Thornycroft—lived during the reign of Queen Victoria, another powerful woman who herself oversaw an empire at its height of expansion. The allegory of a queen of long ago who stood up to oppression (her name translates to “victory,”) made a natural parallel to Victoria.
England’s first ruling queen in over 200 years, Victoria was a prominent figure with a reign that spanned six decades. Her influence and power were reminders that women play important roles in our society, and they should not be overlooked.
“When I was a boy I used to think that STRONG meant having big muscles, great physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is NOT seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.” — Fred Rogers, 2003
After September 11, a quote from Mister Rogers surfaced that frequently gets reused, particularly during national tragedies: “Look for the helpers.” It comes from this longer quote:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
The helpers in our lives are often women: mothers, sisters, aunts, wives. They provide nurturing environments. They protect us. They fight for us. They labor tirelessly on our behalf, whether leading multinational companies, negotiating agreements, holding political office, fighting for the resources they need to teach, or putting food on the table.
Too often, they’re overlooked. Yet they shouldn’t be. Nor should they be celebrated only on International Women’s Day or Mother’s Day.
“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943
We see what we want to see.
And as leaders, we can make others see what needs to be seen.
Look for the helpers, certainly. And make sure everyone knows who they are.
P.S. That reminds me: I’ve unlocked The Dignity of Work, previously available only to premium subscribers. See what you think.
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Preview of Friday’s curated content
Yes, we ought to be looking for helpers and acknowledging our interdependence, but there are times when leaders need to be alone and reflect. That’s what we’ll cover on Friday.
One timely link:
The chairman of PwC is focused on bringing more overlooked people to leadership positions. Longstanding white males in the firm have raised objections. How does he deal with that pushback? Subscribe for the answer.
One timeless story:
Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Unlock it by becoming a premium subscriber.
This week’s book recommendation:
Throughout history, leaders have used solitude as a matter of course. Martin Luther King found moral courage while sitting alone at his kitchen table one night during the Montgomery bus boycott. Jane Goodall used her intuition in the jungles of central Africa while learning how to approach chimps. Solitude is a state of mind, a space where you can focus on your own thoughts without distraction, with a power to bring mind and soul together in clear-eyed conviction. To find solitude today, a leader must make a conscious effort. This book explains why the effort is worthwhile and how to make it. Discover which book this is in the members-only edition by subscribing today.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.