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Helpful Help

The following was offered as a starting point for leaders in my weekly email newsletter in response to the public outcry against systemic racism.


Hey There,

The obligation of leadership is to step into the uncomfortable and unknown. I can’t write about COVID and the struggling economy and not talk about the racial pain in America.

Here in Minneapolis, we’re hurting. It’s heartbreaking to watch the death of George Floyd, and it’s crushing to see the destruction that comes with anger and agony. Leaders often struggle to know how to respond to personal pain and even more when it’s racial pain and social suffering.

I made a point of calling my friends, family, and clients of color this week to ask what would be a meaningful response to the tragedy and the ensuing violence. They were hard, scary, and important conversations. A few things stood out to me, and I’m offering them as suggestions to leaders, but also as something I’m trying to live out myself.

1-Ask Questions

As leaders, few things have a more significant impact on people we lead, then asking, “How are you?” In Gallup’s Q12 engagement survey to measure employee engagement, a key question is, does my manager care about me as a person? People want to be seen as more than a means to an end. As leaders, we can be afraid of asking any question we don’t have the answer to. This fear is magnified when the pain is beyond our ability to help, or if we are part of the problem. Be courageous and ask the hard questions of people in your life this week.

-How do you feel about the world right now?

-How do you feel about race relations and privilege in your context?

-What would be something you’d like to change in your life and community?


We know questions are hard for us. We’ve been conditioned to believe the power is in the answer. This default is why children love the simplicity of arithmetic but struggle with the complexity of algebra. The more complex the problem, the more the process is the solution. Ask your people questions, not to provide all the answers, but to allow them to be heard. The process of articulating our feelings is clarifying and calming. Listening is good for your soul and theirs. But listening requires more than staring at them with a flat statue face. Practice active listening with the people you lead.

-Don’t be rushed; take some time to engage.

-Reflect what you’re hearing. (Think of the tone and content of what you’re hearing.)

-Express empathy for what they’re experiencing.

-Apologize if you’re the source of the pain.

3-Offer “helpful help.”

I had a therapist friend who used to respond to my tirades of what I needed to tell people to “help set them right” with the statement: “But Mike, will it be “helpful help?”‘ Too often, our help or advice is so self-focused that we fail to realize that it isn’t helpful help. It would likely make us more comfortable but would it result in the change that we want to see? So what is “helpful help” and how do we know it when we see it?

I have a personal framework, and it helps me check myself when I’m no longer helpful.

-The greatest human desire is to be loved and accepted without condition and to know we’re not alone.

Am I facilitating this desire or not?

Applying this framework helps me know who it is I’m trying to help. Too often, my truth trumps my love. I have to fight with myself to choose others over my comfort. Am I striving to support people I care about or trying to make my life easier? No judgment either way, but I need to be clear on the answer.

-Offer up your resources but allow others the space to decide how to use it.

-Recognize that we will need to feel we belong before we ever align on what we believe.

-Is what is helpful for me hurtful to you? Unintended consequences are real.

-The best way to offer help is by asking people what they need and letting them guide us.

Three steps, ask, listen, offer, I challenge you to do that with your staff, in your one-on-ones, with your spouse or partner, and even your children in the next week. These are small steps but make our world a healthier place.

Much Love,



If you’d like resources to help you process your own thoughts as you lead others, here’s a couple great books that speak to race, pain and reframing our world.

Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt
I read this book last winter and mentioned in another email. it’s by a researcher helping police reform training process and engagement. It’s even more helpful today that it was then.

David and Goliath: Underdogs Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. I listened to this this week after Trevor Noah referenced this in his post in response to the death of George Floyd. Gladwell does a great job of unpacking how complexity forces us to rethink our responses and how we contribute to the things we claim we don’t want to happen.

If you haven’t seen Trevor Noah’s 15 min post on the protests it’s an incredible articulation of how so many people of color are feeling right now.

Hope this helps and gives you a starting point with people you lead and love this week.

As always, I’m happy to help if anyone needs to talk.


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