Rescue Mentality

There is a characteristic in the Ceannas Leadership Index that measures the extent to which a leader is prepared to sacrifice herself or himself for other people.

It was during a discussion with a leader about this characteristic that she used a phrase that really struck a chord with me.

“I suppose I sometimes suffer from a ‘rescuer’ mentality”
The sacrifice characteristic lies within the domain of the Ceannas ‘parent’ behaviours, as the idea of self-sacrifice is something with which any parent will immediately associate.

However, it is also a characteristic of many leaders and just as with the parent it can be a double-edged sword.

From the positive perspective such a leader creates a ‘safe’ environment for others, i.e. if things go wrong they will be there to effect a rescue, in that they will take responsibility, blame and criticism. They will also be prepared to give up their own time and needs in order to help others, even if it is to their own detriment.

As ever in leadership situations such assets can – if overplayed – turn into a significant disadvantage.

It’s here that the idea of the ‘rescuer’ mentality becomes a very useful way of looking at these drawbacks.

To rescue someone is a hugely rewarding action, especially if the person was in danger of ‘going under’.

The selfless rescuing leader in these circumstances typically lifts some of the burden and takes it on themselves, or reallocates work to others.

However, such repeated behaviour creates an expectation from others that when things get difficult people can pass on the ‘tough stuff’ to their leader.

This triggered a memory for me from the time I gained my qualification as a lifesaver from the Royal Lifesaving Society, the famous drowning prevention charity.

One of the first things you learn on such courses is the importance of keeping yourself, as the rescuer, from danger. A drowning person will grab onto anything in their panic, and can easily drag their rescuer down with them. Throwing a ball or a float; reaching out with a stick; or throwing a line are all preferable in the first instance to an actual physical rescue.

In much the same way the leader would be well advised to seek ways that would allow the person to save themselves rather than immediately leaping into the dark water to pull them to safety.

Of course the very act of physically rescuing someone is an exceptional experience – but without care it can become default behaviour. Such leaders unintentionally create a dependency culture where people’s resilience and capacity to think for themselves is compromised to the point that they cannot work independently of the leader. Not only that, but the leader eventually creates a situation where their own well-being and effectiveness is compromised, i.e. they go under themselves.

The best advice to such leaders is to seek ways of supporting those in danger of being submerged to enable them to save themselves. Even better – teach them how to swim.

Nevertheless, the great leader will always have that capacity, in times of extreme need, to be able to leap into the water and effect a rescue – even if it places themselves at risk.

Just don’t turn it into a habit!