Helping Others vs. Enabling Others

In January 2019, Michaele and I created the 12 Agile Best Self Principles. Since that first version, there have been a number of changes, with more certainly on the way. Our collaborative approach to editing our content has yielded deeper understanding of the principles, and an appreciation of the importance of each word in them.

One of the recent changes was to Agile Best Self Principle 1:

Agile Best Self Principle #1: Our highest priority is to be our best self and enable others to be their best selves.

The original version said “…our best self, so that we can help others be their best selves”. It comes down to the word “help” compared to “enable”. At first look, the difference seems trivial, but looking deeper I feel it’s actually a more important change. The words matter.

Let’s start with the definition of the word help, from Google:

Highlights of the definition are around doing something in service to someone else, be of benefit to, or improve. As I thought about the definition, what resonated with me was that help is primarily like adding an extra set of hands to help someone else.

Now, let’s take a look at the definition of enable from Google:

I was surprised at first to learn that the word “help” was not one of the synonyms for enable. Enable has an implication of empowerment, which is different than the word “help”, as stated above.

Helping others can be like a life buoy sometimes

Back to Principle 1. On our journey to our own best self, we will not only ask for and receive help we will also be enabled by others. The second half of the principle is our call to how we apply our best self — to enable others to be our best self. It’s not to say we should not help others, but whenever we can we should strive to enable others. It is like the old saying: “Give a person a fish, feed that person for a day. Teach a person to fish, that person can eat for for a lifetime.”

I experienced this nuance first hand in April 2018, at the Global Scrum Gathering in Minneapolis. At that moment of my journey, I was at the bottom of the emotional roller coaster that goes along with leading a transformational change. I call it the “Pit of Despair”. At that moment, I would have been willing to take any new job that may have come along my way. I went to the event seeking the answer to this question:

“Who is responsible for caring for the coach?”

I was looking for help — I was interested in meeting anyone who could provide a clear answer or solution. I was searching for answers. I was lost until I found myself.

To enable is like giving a guitar lesson

The Agile community enabled me to move forward by showing me that I needed to take responsibility. I had to own it. The Agile community helped me move out of the “Pit” by helping me realize that everything I needed, I already had; I was the one who was best qualified to solve my own problems, moving beyond burnout toward awesome.

In the end, the word “enable” is exactly the right word for Principle 1. To be our best self, we have to put in the time, effort and heartbreak to figure out who that best self is. We have to take that ski jump ourselves.

The words matter, as you can see in Principle 1, and you can be sure we will be mindful of the words as we evolve the 12 Agile Best Self Principles in the coming months.

Copyright © 2020 Michaele Gardner and Brian Hackerson

Published by Brian Hackerson

My personal philosophy is to be a light.

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