Just Be Helpful – Don’t aim for smart, nice, cool, or clever

If the human race wishes to have a prolonged and indefinite period of material prosperity, they have only got to behave in a peaceful and helpful way toward one another. Winston Churchill

How many times have you left a meeting after a lot of talking and pontificating, and not had any idea what anyone meant or what to do next? Too often, I’m sure. That’s probably because the folks in the room weren’t following a golden rule – to be helpful. Usually, people follow other rules, like the “score points” rule, or “protect myself” rule, or “show how smart I am” rule. But those are bad rules. The only rule worth a damn is the “be helpful” rule.

What is being helpful? Giving direction that helps take projects to the next step. Providing clarity to help teams drive solutions towards the right issues and outcomes. Factoring in realities, not just broad generalities, when giving feedback. And, in the words of Yishan Wong, CEO of Reddit, “focus primarily on making everyone around you succeed.” To me, that’s the number one role of a leader – to help those around him or her be better.

How can you be helpful?

Don’t be overly clever. We all like catchy phrases, pithy copy, creative sounding sound-bites. But this type of language is inappropriate to initiate or provide direction for action. For example, I always see way-too-clever writing in assignment briefs, a document meant to be directive and clear. The problem with clever is that it can have multiple meanings. Or it can be vague. Or the fact that it’s amusing makes people focus on the wrong point. When in doubt (which is always), use clear, direct language. That is what is helpful. Not something you write to show people how creative you are. Instead, let people know how helpful you are.

Don’t be nice. I’m a nice guy. And I tend to like nice people. However, I know that you need to choose to be helpful over nice, at least in business. For example, give helpful feedback, not “nice” feedback – even if the person may not like hearing it. And take the time to give constructive criticism, even if it feels like the nice thing to do would be to say nothing. Because being helpful IS being nice.

Make everyone around you better.  As I’ve said before, the number one job of leaders is to make those around them better. Period, end of story. And the way to do that is to be helpful to them. Give good briefs. Over-communicate. Provide timely and regular feedback. Give development plans and career paths. Be appreciative. And reward good work. You can’t get much more helpful than this.

Don’t try to “score points”. Another behavior that isn’t very helpful is the attempt to score points, vs. simply doing what helps solve problems and deliver good work. You know what I mean – when people strive to show how smart they are, by demonstrating knowledge, or asking difficult questions. But it’s easy to see through these attempts, as they fail the test of addressing the problem the team is trying to solve. Helping solve problems is the only real way to score points.

Clarity, clarity, clarity. I have worked with and for many very smart people in my career. People who can talk about anything, have opinions about everything, who can speak extemporaneously about a topic in a way that sounds like they’d been thinking about it for a year. I can’t do that. But some of these smart people can go on and on, and yet never make it clear what they mean. They talk and talk – but don’t say anything. I’d prefer the exact opposite – far fewer words, but much more meaning. Much clearer direction. Much more helpful.

Simple trumps complicated. If it takes 47 Powerpoint charts to say it, it’s probably not helpful. If it requires a 23-point diagram or infographic, it’s also likely not helpful. And if you need someone to translate into plain English what you’ve just said, it’s definitely not helpful. Distillation, concision, and sacrifice are the essence of helpfulness.

Which is why I hate jargon and buzzwords. So often they are fuzzy, catch-all’s that mean everything and nothing all at once. If someone tells you they want to “drive engagement with a breakthrough social media program that will go viral and drive successful metrics”, ask them to restate that with specific words. Because it could mean anything. I agree with Dan Palotta, who wrote in the HBR that “if it’s to people’s benefit that I understand them but I don’t, then they’re the ones who are stupid”.

So, from now on, use this simple barometer when working with partners, teams, clients, etc. – is my behavior helpful? Is the feedback, direction, reaction or commentary I am giving helpful in driving towards a positive outcome? Can I disengage my other desires – to appear smart, to be cool, to avoid failure, to be powerful – and focus solely on the joint success of my teammates? If so, then you have succeeded in helping yourself be helpful.

What do you all think?


  1. Very interesting perspective indeed sir. I know I am not clever or even nice for that matter, but I am not sure if I am helpful. I will spend a few moments pondering that. Thanks for getting me thinking.

  2. Michael, great post. You captured it succinctly with this statement: “focus primarily on making everyone around you succeed.” To me, that’s the number one role of a leader – to help those around him or her be better.”

  3. David, you’ve captured the secret of engagement at a strategically high-level. Now I believe if we just applied some metrics to this…. j/k. Seriously, wonderful, and easy to understand, advice. Reading this gave me several Ah-ha! moments, but the biggest was – wouldn’t it be amazing to know the amount of time that could be saved in meetings around the world if everyone followed this advice? I’d love to see the infographic on THAT. Regards

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