Leadership Tactic #55: Do Something

Have you ever lost someone close to you? Have you ever needed taking care of after an injury or sickness? Have you ever been hit by a major disaster?

If you have, you know that you’ll get a lot of people saying this to you: “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Which is, in essence, well-intentioned BS.

If someone genuinely wants to take the time to help you, they simply will. They’ll do something. And you should too–if you mean it.

I learned this lesson a year and a half ago when the husband of a very active volunteer at my church was diagnosed with cancer. They’re an elderly couple, and the cancer crippled them to some extent.

One day in the fall I called up the wife and said, “Hey, I’d like to come over to rake leaves for you this weekend.”

I was specific and direct but not aggressive. And she said yes.

She later told me that a lot of people had been calling the house to express their sympathy. Many of them asked if they could help, which really wasn’t helpful at all at the time, because she was caught up in the middle of a very tough situation and didn’t have the time or sense to delegate tasks to people. And the few times that she did respond to that request with a specific task, suddenly the people couldn’t fit it into their schedules.

People use that phrase to express sympathy, not to actually help. And I’m sure you’re thinking, “I don’t do that! I really want to help–I just don’t know what they need!” The thing is, if you really want to help, you can figure it out. You’re an adult. Just do something. At the very least, offer something specific like I did.

This advice extends to charitable organizations. Perhaps you want to get involved in a local nonprofit. Don’t call up and say, “Hey, is there anything I can do to help?” If you do, you might get added to a list, and maybe you’ll get an e-mail sometime in the future.

Instead, call up and say (as a volunteer did for us this past year), “Hey, I noticed that your stone bench needs a power wash. I have a power washer. Can I come in this week to wash the bench?”

If you want to make a positive impact on someone or some organization in need, don’t make vague, halfhearted offers to help. Be specific and do something. That’s how you make a difference.

18 thoughts on “Leadership Tactic #55: Do Something”

  1. I’ll start shopping for a power washer.

    But what you’re saying here is very applicable in all areas of life: asking somebody out on a date (“Wanna go out sometime?” vs. “Wanna grab ice cream on this hot day?”) or getting more responsibility at work (“I’ve done a good job. Can I have more responsibility?” vs. “Here’s a proposal for a project I’d like to take on.”)

    Which sucks for me as an abstract thinker, but it’s a reality I continue to work to become better at handling.

  2. This is simple, but when you are at a large gathering and the trash can is overflowing, don’t stack your plate on top, take out the trash yourself. You know how to do that. The extra bags are under the sink.

    • John–Great example. As you know, I coordinate a big fundraising event every year. And every year, without fail, a few people show up on the day of the Gala while I’m running around trying to make sure a million things are in order and ask me, “What can I do?” What you can do is do something, anything other than standing there asking me what to do.

      Now, I should add that a really good leader will have a list of small duties to delegate on a moment’s notice to people like that, and I’ve gotten better at that. But it really helps when someone shows up and immediately finds something to do.

  3. OMG!!! I WISH more people thought like this. The only thing that kept running through my mind when reading this was, “PREACH IT JAMEY!” It’s so frustrating when a friend tells you in your time of need, “If you need ANYTHING, let me know.” Then you let them know and either you get no response, or like you say, they can’t fit you into the schedule. They generally only want to help you when its convenient for them, and usually its when you have nothing going on…therefore they don’t need to do anything yet it still looks like they’re concerned.

    You’re right, if you’re calling an organization or contacting a friend who works for a non-profit organization, you better be forthright and honest in your “willingness” to do something rather than just feigning interest to get yourself to look good in their eyes. You should be doing it because you want to and not because you feel obligated.

    This last month and a half has taught me I’d rather have people around who want to help rather than those who feel obligated because they’ve been told that’s what friends/decent human beings are supposed to do. That goes for ANY situation.

    Thank you for posting this! 🙂

    • P.S. and yes, in my agreement and frustration at the general population in the above paragraph there is a repeat of a thought…but that just goes to show how aggravating this subject is!

    • Thanks Georgia. 🙂 I should also point this out: Some people don’t want to help. They just want to express their sympathy (and I contend that those are the people who are halfheartedly saying, “If you need anything, let me know.”)

      And that’s okay.

      It’s okay that some people don’t want to help. But those people shouldn’t offer to “do anything,” simple as that.

      I guess that leaves the question: “What can those people do?”

  4. You’re right. Chances are if they offered help, and then did it because of feeling obligated, they wouldn’t be proactive and much help anyway…in any situation. They shouldn’t offer, if they genuinely don’t want to. What they CAN do is express their sympathy and thoughts, and just leave it at that. (However, depending on how well you know the person and how many years you’ve been friends or colleagues, it doesn’t mean you won’t be disappointed in them! Especially if they’ve relied on you in years past.)

    • Georgia–Definitely true. Sometimes tough times can help us figure out who our real friends are.

      You mention reciprocation. Moving comes to mind for me. Back before I moved to my condo, helping people move was a type of social currency. Whenever someone asked for help, I helped them, as I knew that I’d need their help in the future for my big move. Of the people who helped me with that move, I helped some of them in advance, and I helped some of them later.

      Those debts are all paid off now. And after that big move, I decided that I’d never ask my friends to do that again. It was a huge job, and I don’t feel that it’s fair for me to ask my friends to do my chores for me. So the next time I move, without question I’ll be hiring movers to help. I think the exception to that is if you just need help moving only one or two big items of furniture and you’re taking care of everything else yourself.

  5. Yeah, definitely hire movers for the next time you decide to move! Not only will it make it easier, but your friends will thank you. In the past I’ve used that as currency too. Like you, never again will that be a currency! Just for future reference, Two Men and a Truck are excellent. 🙂 (Hopefully the movers won’t flirt with you like what happened in my move!)

    I wasn’t necessarily thinking in reference to moving, but just in general lending an ear or a shoulder rather than distractions from what’s actually going on.

  6. I am one of those people who frequently says “let me know if you need anything,” and I stand by that position because I mean it. I rarely have people take me up on those offers, but I don’t think I’ve ever turned anyone down. Particularly in the case of grievances, I will often follow up with specifics – food, company, contacting others – but I also know that just showing up and doing something can cause more trouble then help. For example, in Judaism it is customary to send food to the home of the deceased. But if everyone sends food on the first day – then it goes bad and is thrown away. Calling to express your sympathy may make that person feel obligated to take your call when they really just want to be with family. But reminding someone that you care by assuring them of your support can be very important emotionally for both parties. If someone comes to my house for dinner and just starts putting dishes on the table, I am going to be really annoyed. But if they ask what they can do, I appreciate that they both want to help but respect that it is my house and I am the overall planner. Secondly, I like helping. I offer because I want the person to tell me what they need done, or to say – nothing at all. I ask people to help me and I wish people would take me up on my offers to help them more often.
    So maybe you have been burned by bogus offers of help in the past – but please don’t extend the generalization of BS to the entire population.

    • Ariel–Knowing you, I know that you are genuine when you leave your offer to help open. And I think this is quite true: “reminding someone that you care by assuring them of your support can be very important emotionally for both parties” (although I think it’s a slap in the face when you realize that many people aren’t genuine in their offers to help).

      Now, since you genuinely want to help, I’m here to say that the best way to help is to do something. You’re extremely intelligent–you can figure out that someone doesn’t need another casserole in their fridge. In fact, I can remember a time when I was sick, and you didn’t call to say, “Can I do anything?” You called and said, “I’m going to bring over some soup and then leave so you can rest.” And that was awesome. You knew I could benefit from some soup, but you also knew that I didn’t have the energy to entertain. So perhaps you already take the proactive role that I advocate here–you just don’t realize it! 🙂

  7. Ha! Way to take my being helpful and turn it against me. I shall enact a strict policy of only making vague offers of help to you in the future. 😉

  8. Brilliant perspective.

    I like to do the same – instead of offering to bring a meal, I’ll just drop it off with prep instructions for when they decide they need it.

    When I’m in a position to need help, I SO appreciate when people take the initiative and do it. I’ll never forget the horrific snowstorm when I lived alone. One of my good friends came over and took his snow blower to the whole thing, unasked, and left without a word. I won’t ever forget how awesome it made me feel!

    • Penelope–That’s a fantastic example. I think when we’re frazzled and perhaps distraught, our brains don’t respond well to, “Can I do anything?” It’s actually easier for us to say no to such requests because it’s hard to sort through our thoughts and feelings. So having someone just show up and do something–or call and say they’d like to do something very specific–takes a big weight off our shoulders instead of adding more confusion to our day.


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