How to Stop Being a Helicopter Leader

by Alli Polin on February 23, 2016

helicopter leader

Do you feel like a super-awesome leader because every time someone on your team brings you a problem, heck, before they bring you the problem, you solve it. Unfortunately, resolving every issue and removing every roadblock may be doing more damage than you think. You may be a Helicopter Leader.

What? Helicopter Leader? That’s not even a real thing. Besides, isn’t that what a leader is supposed to do? 

Yes! Solving problems and clearing the path forward is absolutely what you should be doing. The question is, are you doing too much and creating a culture of permission and disempowerment?

Not what you were going for, right?

We’ve all heard of Helicopter Parents, what about Helicopter Leaders?

It’s possible that all of your doing and fixing and hovering is creating a team that lacks resilience, know-how and the confidence to face difficult situations head-on without your intervention. Yikes.

Ultimately, leaders can do less and create a team that feels more responsible, accountable and empowered to make things happen. Leaders usurp all of the leadership when they fix instead of coach, guide and mentor. It’s up to you to create the next generation of leaders, not only lead today.

Give up the pressure of being a Helicopter Leader. Your team is smart and capable. It’s time to do less and create more empowered leadership in others. Sounds good to me. What do you think?

Tough Love Enables Leadership to Thrive

Recently my daughter had a swimming carnival at school and every single student had to participate in the competition. Someone signed her up for backstroke and she wanted to do breaststroke instead.

She asked for my help because she hates backstroke. Like a lot.

My advice was for her to speak to her Tutor Group teacher (for those of you in the USA, that’s like a homeroom teacher) and find out how she could make the switch. Once she figured out who to talk to, she could find them and let them know.

She wanted me to fix it, not offer suggestions. I refused.

Yes, one phone call and I’d bet it would have been resolved in her favor. Still, I didn’t pick up the phone.

If you think that makes me a bad parent, you might as well stop reading now. I didn’t cave despite her whining or her remarkably high-stress levels when just thinking about competing in backstroke. (She’s perfectly good at backstroke by the way).

If I take care of everything, when will she learn how or, more importantly, that she can too?

I wanted her to be happy and to have a great experience at the swim carnival, I’m her Mom. She accused me of not caring; she’s wrong. I did (and do) care a ton. It took more energy to stop myself from jumping in to make everything perfect for her than to just fix it. I stepped back because, she is capable and even more important than I know it, she needed to know it.

In the end, she swam in the backstroke competition. No, she didn’t make waves about a switch to breaststroke, but now knows that if something needed to change, it was up to her.

She has no idea how she placed in her heat, it didn’t matter. It was a great day at the pool competing and cheering on her classmates. She also learned a critical lesson that things she doesn’t want to do, and doubts her skills in, can be wonderful too.

You:

When you want something to change, you don’t have to ask someone else to fix it. Speak up and make it happen. If you run into trouble after doing your best to take action, it’s the perfect time to ask for help – because you’ve done all you can.

Helicopter Leaders and Parents:

Show your team (and children) that they have the power to act; they are empowered. Encourage them, guide them, make suggestions… but hold back from always doing for them. Let them discover that they too have the ability to influence and change their circumstances.

You won’t be here forever, help them learn to lead.

Through your actions, and being a leader (and parent) who does less without caring less, help your team discover:

You are not powerless.

You are resourceful.

You are not impotent.

You are compelling.

You are not afraid.

You are simply stepping into the unknown… and I believe in you.

Have courage.

Faith.

Hope.

When you help yourself, others are there for you too.

Over to you, are you a helicopter leader?

 

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Chery Gegelman February 23, 2016 at 6:25 am

Huge applause to you for not making that call Alli! As a Career Services Professional, our team had lots of opportunities to coach parents that were parents making phone calls for their adult children’s career searches, attending interviews with their adult children, and even trying to negotiate wages for their adult children!!!

Part of our expat experience has been witnessing a large number of adults that are willing spend tons of time and waste an unbelievable amount of energy complaining about issues that could be resolved. Yes they may need to make a phone call, send an email or go in person. And yes they may need to follow up. But I’d bet that if they leveraged only 50% of the energy they spend complaining, to work towards a solution instead. It would come!

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Alli Polin February 23, 2016 at 6:35 am

I can’t even imagine considering going to an interview with my child – crazy.

It’s so tempting to wait for others to swoop in and solve our problems. You and I both know, there’s no need to wait.

Thanks, Chery!

~ Alli

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Jon Mertz February 23, 2016 at 7:09 am

Alli,

A good way to think about our leadership. Although I don’t think I am a helicopter leader, I know the temptation is to dive in and just get it done. We need to control our pattern and provide the environment for people to thrive in their talent.

Great reminders.

Jon

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Alli Polin February 23, 2016 at 7:20 am

When I was working in a corporate position and it felt like literally everything we did was time sensitive, that desire to jump in and just do it was strong. When I gave my people the coaching and space to step up and lead forward, most of the time they did. Love the way you put it here.

Many thanks, Jon!

~ Alli

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Terri Klass February 23, 2016 at 9:14 am

Although I work hard at empowering others to make their own decisions and be accountable for those choices, it can be difficult to sometimes step back. Even in my programs and coaching sessions, it is so tempting to jump in and save the day. But as you point out, one never learns from being saved, only through trial and error mistakes and successes.
Your excellent post is so helpful and I will share with the teams and individuals I partner with.
Thanks Alli and you are a great role model for your daughter! Terri

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Alli Polin February 23, 2016 at 10:12 pm

It was definitely a shift for me in my coaching work to getting deeply curious instead of jumping in with solutions to make things better. The learning happens not only in the success but in the struggle – definitely not something to breeze by at 100 mph.

Thanks for sharing your insight and experience here, Terri!

~ Alli

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John Bennett February 23, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Such an important notion: “… does less without caring less…” Indeed, it’s because you care so much that it’s so important to do less!!! Even if they (team members or family members) maybe don’t know exactly what needs to be done, it’s still important to support and advise that to always do!

I’m reminded of Dan Pink’s three elements of an environment that promotes intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Helicopter leaders and parents, with good intentions / caring, often interrupt all three!!!

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Alli Polin February 23, 2016 at 10:14 pm

I totally understand just wanting someone to take care of things for me. I do it to my husband all the time… because I don’t want to not because I can’t. Sometimes he does it, sometimes he lets it wait (he’s a busy guy) and I do what I should have in the first place – get it done.

Glad you brought in Dan Pink’s work here. Gives me something to reflect on how the two intersect. I think you’re spot on that we inhibit autonomy, increase time to mastery and weaken purpose when we are helicopters instead of humans.

Grateful!

~ Alli

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Jane February 23, 2016 at 12:16 pm

I was drawn to your title because I only recently learned about Helicopter parents. I guess when my kids were young they were just called Manipulator Parents. Anyway, your article makes great sense and I can empathize with responders in the comments. In my own experience, Helicopter Leaders were double minded. They assigned, said they had confidence in your abilities, then sent you on your way – only to ‘check back’ every hour or two to see how you were coming. That doesn’t sound much like confidence to me. I also identified with this statement” If you run into trouble after doing your best to take action, it’s the perfect time to ask for help – because you’ve done all you can.” Sometimes an assignment, not matter how confidently is it given, isn’t something the person excels at. Here’s an example. There is something messed up in my vision that prevents me from seeing straight lines. Given a task of hanging photos in the hallway sounds easy and I would give it my best effort and do all I could – but the chances that they will be symmetrical, straight, and evenly spaced is, at best, a crap shoot and at worst a disaster. When that assignment was given to me, I immediately asked for help, explained that I couldn’t do it, was turned down – and in the end, I took matters into my own hands and solicited the help of others anyway. I got into trouble, but the pictures were hung perfectly. It wasn’t exactly a win for me, but it was a win for people who passed by the photos in the future. Plus I gave my helpers Starbucks cards.

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Alli Polin February 23, 2016 at 10:27 pm

First of all, thank you for taking the time to read and comment! There is so much in your comment that adds to the conversation – I appreciate it.

I think it’s a fine line between a helicopter leader and one who is a micromanager. I’ve worked for my fair share of micromanagers and the outcome is usually the same if not worse – people feel demotivated and oppressed. With the helicopter leader, I think that some people just begin to assume that someone else will take care of the issues and they don’t even need to dig in and make headway.

I’m also bummed to hear that when you raised that a specific task was not only difficult for you but would yield poor results, you were still stuck. Tells me a lot about your personal leadership that you still made it happen and rewarded those who helped. I wonder why when you didn’t say “I don’t want to” but instead focused on the real reasons why you were unable, it fell on deaf ears. Maybe they knew you’d figure it out and get it done perfectly in the end.

Thanks, Jane!!

~ Alli

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Jane February 24, 2016 at 8:27 am

In reply to this comment, “I wonder why when you didn’t say “I don’t want to” but instead focused on the real reasons why you were unable, it fell on deaf ears. ” Because of the double-minded leadership style. On one hand the photos to be hung were illustrations of company values, employees first – you know. But in reality it was the action on the flip side acted out. My way or the highway. It was a great company as far as pay and benefits. On values and virtue, a little rusty.

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LaRae Quy February 23, 2016 at 1:36 pm

Ooops…I’ve been a helicopter leader! I recognized myself as I read your great blog. Sometimes it’s far simpler, easier, and faster to fix the problem myself rather than taking the time to explain, coach, or mentor. But as you aptly point out, all that does is disempower the other person because they are never placed in a position to learn and correct behavior…great post!

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Alli Polin February 23, 2016 at 10:31 pm

You? I’ve worked with you and you are certainly a leader whom I greatly admire. Good to know we all have our moments.

Learning comes in the stretch, not the glide…. even when there are times we’d all rather glide.

Thanks a ton for your comment, LaRae!

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