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This past week, a client made an email introduction to me on behalf of her colleague who is looking for help for an upcoming virtual product launch meeting.

I read it. Then I read it again.

“Doreen is our leadership Sherpa.”

That was new.  I have never been introduced that way.

I have to admit …I kinda like it.  I love it actually.

Technically, Sherpas are the name for local, highly skilled and experienced mountaineers in the Himalayas.  Their job is to support.  Sherpas prepare climbing routes for climbers to follow (such as placing and fixing ropes) and carry loads up a mountain – such as Everest.

For this specific client, a leadership Sherpa is exactly what I am – especially in these Everest conditions.  I am merely providing some suggested routes and supporting them by carrying gear they may need along their journey.   They are the ones conquering the mountain.


Knowing our role and responsibilities is a critical factor to our own and others’ success.


Knowing our role and responsibilities in times of heightened stress is even more critical.


This leads us to a concept that I must give credit to where credit is due – my Mom (Carol Linneman, RN, MA, Certificate in Gerontology).   Carol coined the phrase “supportgiver” years ago while vitally defining the difference between a caregiver and a supportgiver in a family member context while navigating the needs of aging parents.


Carol observed that families were carrying two loads up the mountain …carrying the loads of both a caregiver AND a supportgiver.   We should not carry two different loads.  Not only is this unsustainable, it actually hurts the person for whom we are trying to be an expert Sherpa.   We can’t be placing and fixing ropes for which we are not skilled.   Even though we may be trying to help, if our “climber” reaches for a rope that is not fixed properly they fall.


We must understand and own the role for which we are uniquely skilled at doing.  We must carry the right load to truly help the people we are serving.


In the context of aging parents, Carol distinguishes a supportgiver from a caregiver role:

  • supportgiver differs from a caregiver. A caregiver administers direct physical, psychological or spiritual care. Nurses, therapists and pastors are all examples of caregivers.
  • supportgiver focuses on a different set of needs, such as attending to the personal environment, making meaningful visits, helping with decisions and correspondence, paying bills, setting appointments and becoming a caring advocate.
  • As a supportgiver, one is relieved of the physical and emotional stress of direct caregiving, thus enabling him or her to spend quality time supporting a loved one.

In context of corporate leadership in these unprecedented coronavirus times, we must also distinguish the supportgiver role from the caregiver role.  As servant leaders, we want to help.  We want to do everything we can.  We want to be a Sherpa that carries two packs up the mountain for our people.   We can’t.   We must be placing the ropes and carrying the loads for what we are uniquely skilled to do.  And let other Sherpas carry their loads.  That is our best chance for ensuring our people summit this mountain.


Leaders must define and embrace their role as a supportgiver and let the caregivers carry the load that they are skilled to carry.   We, well most of us, are not licensed therapists or certified life coaches.  Our people need the best of both skillsets, now more than ever.


We leaders, as supportgivers, should share and direct our people to caregiving options such as: Human Resources, company hotlines, therapists, professional coaches, and pastors.  When we put down the caregiver pack, we are relieved of the physical and emotional stress of direct caregiving, thus enabling ourselves to spend quality time supporting a team member in our areas of leadership expertise.

Our supportgiver role focuses on a different set of needs, such as attending to the professional environment, connecting with our people on meaningful calls, helping with work prioritization and critical problem solving, and becoming a caring advocate.

As we continue to trek these Mt. Everest conditions, and even when normalcy returns, if you find yourself “Sherpa-ing” the caregiver backpack, it is time.  It is time to put that pack down.  It is time to remember what a highly skilled and experienced leader you are.

For what skills and experience were you hired?  That expertise is what you should be putting into your pack and having at the ready for your team as they wind their way up this mountain.


Ok, leadership Sherpas, let’s put down the caregiver pack and pick up the supportgiver pack:


  1. Let go.

Being a caregiver is not your job.  Stop it.


Unless you literally are a caregiver (see aforementioned categories), you must let go of being the caregiver for your people.


You are not equipped or trained as a caregiver.  Let the caregivers carry that pack.  They are the ones who have the skills and expertise to help your people in physical and mental health.


What good is carrying gear that you cannot use effectively?  You put your people at risk and in danger if you fix a rope incorrectly.  They go to grab it and it does not hold.  Now where does that leave them?


What good are you if you are carrying a pack that does not fit?  Day after day of carrying that ill-fitting pack, you get injured.  Sometimes to the point that you cannot carry on.  Now where does that leave your people?


  1. Retain responsibility.

Being a supportgiver is your job.  Do it.


Your people need you.  They need the skills that only you can provide.  They need your leadership expertise to support them in their job, their career.  They need support to reinvent the way they do their job or to navigate the different demands in this time.  They need support seeing the vision of the future.  They need support prioritizing the now.


Pause and reflect on what leadership skills you bring to the table.  Lay out all of your specialized gear that can support your people up the mountain.  Gear such as:  prioritization, time management, focus, problem solving, creative thinking, curiosity, delegation, emotional intelligence, communication, analytics, forecasting, mental toughness, or motivational leadership.


Handpick the essential gear.  The gear most needed for this particular mountain.  Do not overstuff your pack or you will not make it up the mountain with them.  Once selected, pack with the most essential at an easy reach.


Put on that supportgiver pack and reclaim your Sherpa role.


Let your people know what you are here to do, how you can help them, how to use you as a resource.   Also let them know what you are not there to do and guide them where to get the support they may need.


  1. Reap rewards.

Oh my word doesn’t that feel better?!?!


You are energized by being able to use the skills that you are good great at using.  The skills that are supporting your people.  The skills that can get your people to the summit!


You are energized by having a lighter load.  Literally.  You are less tired before, during, and after work hours.   You have energy back to pour into your loved ones, into hobbies or activities, and into yourself.


All this positive energy feeds itself.  You are back to the leader you were before the pandemic. Better yet, you are even a better leader than before.


Knowing and living your Sherpa role is not only freeing, it is inspiring.  You are unleashed to support others in such a way that only you can do.   You get to support them on route to their own summit.  The summit is theirs.  You helped get them there.  Well done.




Note: Carol’s book From Caregiver to Supportgiver can be found on Amazon and feel free to reach out to me directly if you have any questions for Carol or want Sherpa help from her.

Author Doreen Linneman

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