Push or Pull as a Leader? Part I

Back on the farm, I first heard it when a half-dozen neighbors were standing around waiting to begin a threshing bee, an annual rite in which famers moved from farm to farm to help each other harvest grain, sharing a communal threshing machine. In a joking tone, my dad said, “Alright, boys, it’s time to push, pull, or get out of the road.” Since then I’ve heard the phrase at the end of a tedious debate in a Christian school board room about starting a capital campaign, this time said in anger at the board’s indecisiveness. It had the tone of Nike’s “Just Do It.”

Whether to push or pull is a crucial part of leadership. Even the choice of “getting out of the road” is part of leadership. Pushing or pulling as a leader takes effort, is likely to get resistance from followers, and may lead to giving up. Just this month I heard a principal say, in the middle of criticism for pulling and pushing too much, “I think I’m going to just back off, to let things happen and save myself from the staff’s crabbing.” Teachers and parents all know the temptation of giving up disciplining their children to avoid their “I don’t like you, Mommy” or the teenager’s sassy mouth when we set limits.

Pushing Works…Sometimes

Pushing followers, especially principals’ pushing of teachers, certainly has some benefits. Think of coaches who persistently push their athletes to superior performances. One can find testimonies from athletes—high school to the pros—of thanks to coaches: “They pushed me to be better, pushed me through all the drills when I wanted to give up and didn’t like all the long practices.” It’s the “No pain, no gain” slogan.

I know leaders in Christian schools who have told me stories of a mentor or leadership coach who pushed them to finish a degree, to persist with good school discipline when parents fought them on it, and to carefully show a board why a poor teacher should not be rehired. “Find a mentor,” says Marcus Samuelson, “who will recognize your talent and push you in the right direction.”

Leading from Behind?

In the broader field of leadership, pushing generally gets a bad rap. A general in the armed services is thought to be a wimp when he “leads from the rear,” like the band leader who “waits to see where the parade is going and then jumps in front.” Another US president, Theodore Roosevelt, thought a “pushy” leader to be too authoritarian: “People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.”

Christian school leaders who push hard, including themselves, toward the school’s goals may exhaust themselves and become ineffective. I heard from a colleague principal that my superior said once, “When Dan sees a wall, he tries to crash through it rather than looking for a door.” Pushing toward a good end as a leader can wear out both the leader and followers, and delays the school reaching its goals.

Pushing Well

Leaders who push well need to be persistent and patient, careful and honest, and nudging without bullying. The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie said, “You cannot push any one up a ladder unless he be willing to climb a little himself.” The first woman prime minister of Canada, Kim Campbell, said that “Canada needs to push to get on the world stage.” A school media person once reminded a colleague a dozen times—bordering on nagging—pushing, pushing the person to apply for a scholarship, even offering to help with the application. This ended with the colleague receiving a full ride (housing, tuition, food) to a completely free master’s degree.

At the burning bush (Exodus 3–4), God told Moses to lead: “So now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” That sounds like pushing to me. Moses responded with two chapters of excuses: not good enough, people won’t listen, people won’t believe directions came from God, send someone else, he was “slow of speech.” God kept pushing until all the excuses withered. And we all know the rest of the story. Christian school leaders push…well.

Come back in August to read Part II of “Push or Pull as a Leader,” starting with Eisenhower’s contrast about pushing or pulling: “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.”

– Dan Vander Ark

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