Being helpful

As a leader it feels good to be well thought of by others. But, and this is a big but, being kind can so easily be dominated by rescuing.

I have discussed elsewhere the drama triangle with its biased roles of critic, victim, and rescuer. See Looking Up, Looking In.


In my consulting experience the worst of the roles is rescuer. It is so cleverly disguised as kindness, helpfulness, consideration, compassion, and all the nice words in modern leadership models. Subtly it causes the rescuer and their recipient to feel as if something constructive and positive has occurred.

The exact opposite is the reality. The rescuer creates or colludes with a victim.

The impact on organisational performance can be profound where the rescuer culture predominates. We avoid objective feedback, having difficult conversations, and demonstrating and modelling that this is a workplace first and foremost.  These cultures have real difficulty reconciling firmness and reasonable work expectations with compassion, kindness and respect for others. Highly performing workplace needs both with a sensitive balance.

The work only culture is an unpleasant place that breeds bullying. The rescuing culture throws the performance baby out with the helpfulness. The latter culture does more damage as the outcomes and consequences are more subtle and last longer.

4 types of rescuing leadership

Let me share some real-life examples of rescuers I have worked with.

  1. The compassionate rescuer: over empathic, moved by the plight of the other, short-term focus and lack of strategic business consideration.

Manager:  “Sigh, I’m so miserable my mother’s got bad arthritis and I just can’t seem to cope at work any more.”

Leader: “That’s so sad. Take as much time off as you need and don’t worry about the work.

Outcome: Eight weeks later the work load is enormous, the team is in disarray and a terrible conversation is needed with the manager about taking a formal leave of absence.

The Effective leadership response

“That’s terrible. Please have some time off and we will review it in a month see how else we might help you and backfill your role if we need to.”

  1. The ‘I am a hero’ rescuer: rapidly ready with a smile, leaps into help the poor helpless manager. Usually a public show off intervention.

Manager: “I can’t seem to understand this project that you’ve given me and I wonder………”

Leader: “Yes I wondered if it was too much. Let me take it on and I will complete it for you, don’t worry about it.”

Outcome: Demoralised manager who begins to avoid taking on any tasks that might be out of their reach.

The Effective leadership response

“ Let’s discuss it and see what ideas you have before you get back into it.”

  1. The passive/aggressive rescuer: Switches positions with the wind. Feels 
    strongly one way and then just a strongly the other way.

Manager: “ I just don’t seem to be coping very well.”

Leader: “ Well I wondered when you were going to ask for my help, although maybe it’s too late now.”

Outcome:  Team conflict and lack of good outcomes.

The Effective leadership response

“Do you want to talk about it?”

  1. The rabbit rescuer:  Jumps from victim to needy victim like the rabbit in the magician’s hat.

Manager: “This is really proving harder than I thought.”

Leader: “Oh you poor thing, I’ll help as soon as I can but Mary was also struggling with the finance people yesterday so I can only briefly help right now.”


Outcome: Team wide demoralisation.

The Effective leadership response

“It did seem like it could be a difficult job. I’m tied up today can we talk about it tomorrow?”

Effective leaders do not take care of people without being asked, and only provide assistance that empowers their colleagues.

What are your experiences of working with rescuers?