learned helplessness

I’ve been thinking about the topic of learned helplessness for several weeks now.  I first learned about the topic years ago. I read about it in one of my favorite books that I read at least once a year, sometimes multiple times, called Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud. 


This time around, I’m challenged, even convicted in my leadership.  I’m also concerned for the leaders I care about and love serving with locally, nationally and internationally.  I’m asking this question: Have I/we settled?  Have I stopped leading and surrendered to helplessness. 


Have I sold myself short when it comes to courage in leadership?  Have we made excuses for not taking up the fearlessness to lead in the direction our gut is telling us to lead?  My current context has forced this question to bubble up inside of me.  You may be able to relate. 


You may have a couple of leaders whom you love, who in your gut will not be able to go with you into your next chapter as a team and organization. You know their families. You know their kids. You have a catalogue of memories on how you have served together for several years through the "valleys of suck” and celebrated on "the mountain tops" of life transformation.  


We have grown and we have changed and now we no longer fit. This reality has caused my heart and leadership to come to a screeching halt.  Not because I am not confident in what I am observing or even the strategy necessary to go forward.  It’s in my execution.  It’s in my fears. I think I am stuck in learned helplessness


In a nutshell, learned helplessness is the inability to make the right decisions given your current reality.  It’s not because a leader doesn’t want to. According to Martin Seligman, the term "learned helplessness" is a condition in which a person adapts to the misery they are experiencing because they feel that there is nothing they can do about it.  Have you ever been there? 


Sometimes, because of wounds, we don’t act.  Sometimes we continue in life believing a certain voice in our head to avoid pain.  The reality is, if you are just surviving in leadership, feeling like you are handcuffed and cannot make the gut decisions needing to be made, it could be because of your own feelings of learned helplessness.  You have just figured out a way to survive in your circumstances and misery. You have figured out a way to settle and falsely accept that your current reality cannot change.  


If you are feeling these emotions today, you are not alone.  In these times of personal distress and standstill, here is an exercise I take myself through.  It’s one I am practicing today. Hopefully it is helpful to you as well. 


If you are stuck or stalled out in your leadership or even your parenting for that matter, here are some thoughts to consider: 

  1. Define Your Reality - Surround yourself with leaders, friends, colleagues, and mentors that will tell you the truth. I’m not talking about softened truth.  I’m talking about the “last 10%” of truth.  The kind of truth that hurts when it is heard, but heals when it has been given time to be processed.  You must define and objectify your reality.  List out what is great and what is not so great about your current situation or leader.  Be honest and forthright. Be brutally honest.  Hide your screen or paper if you need to, but be honest.
  1. Define Your Boundaries - Understand why you feel the way you do towards a particular staff member, leader or child.  What values and boundaries have been violated in your current context?  Why are you at a crossroads with this leader or situation? Why do you think you feel hopeless?  Why are you hesitating to make a decision and act?  Are you ok with how your values or boundaries have been violated? Are you satisfied with the current culture you and others are having to endure because of this situation or person?
  1. Decide Your Alternatives.  What is your worst case scenario that you can imagine that can come out of your impending truth conversation with your leader?  What is your best case scenario?  What are the outcomes of both alternatives?  Playing this out in my mind really helps me.  When I can get my thoughts around the best and worst case scenarios, it helps me get clarity on my gut decision that needs to be made.  Remember, you are at a crossroads.  A decision is going to be made one way or the other.  You either lavish in helplessness or you make a decision for a change.
  1. Declare Truth. I have a saying that I constantly teach those I lead with ”say what you see.”  I may not like what is spoken, but I need to hear it.  In this case you need to say what you see in the situation you are facing to the other individual.  This takes courage and a fortitude to endure the tsunami of emotions you are experiencing internally.  However,  you are responsible and accountable for the leadership that is needing to take place.  If nothing is done, everyone suffers.  Everyone.
  1. Determine a Decision Timeline.  When we put a date on the calendar of when a follow up conversation has to take place, it creates instant accountability.  The day is coming for your conversation.  It’s not going to be swept under the rug.  One way or another, you have created an opportunity for an impasse. Stay the course. Speak the truth. Lead with confidence.  You are not helpless.  You actually will bring hope. It just doesn’t feel like it now.  


You are not helpless.  The misery doesn’t have to continue.  There are other options.  See the truth and move forward. 


It’s my heart and passion to help leaders live out their calling and thrive.  I want to be one of those leaders too. I believe that your best days are before you.  We all need a little coaching, encouragement, wisdom, and help.  We can’t accomplish our goals in isolation or always on our own.  We need each other.  It’s time to thrive.  Let’s do it together.  You are not alone.   


Let’s unlearn our tendencies of helplessness and lead once again in confidence.  Click here to set up a Discovery Coaching call.