Push or Pull: Part II

In my last blog, I posed the contrast in leadership styles—push or pull—offering reasons for pushing as a means of helping teachers to achieve the school’s mission. Pushing demands accountability; the leader who insists that teachers all post on the school’s website a paragraph about how they weave the Word into their teaching will need to push until all have posted. “Please do this soon” often gets a receptive smile and a mental shrug. “I expect you will have it posted by this date” is a push…for the teachers’ and the school’s good.

Pushing has its benefits. Pulling has more.

The former president of the US Dwight Eisenhower caught the contrast between pull and push by using the analogy of string: “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.” At one conference, we leaders in attendance literally tried to push a string to a goal; we wound up crumbling up the string into a wad, giggling to cover up our frustration, but we gained the goal quickly when we pulled it.

One way to tell whether you prefer pulling or pushing as a leader is to choose a comparison that pictures how you lead. Are you a border collie? A shepherd? A drum major in the band? A writer at Wharton@Work says pushing is “like the sheepdog running into the flock of sheep: they all head off in different directions. Pulling has just one direction. It is like being the shepherd, towards whom his flock will move.”

Recent writers on leadership color their clear preference for pull over push by using words that have strong positive associations for pulling and negative ones for pushing. Pushing is “coercive,” “demanding,” and “demoralizing.” Pulling “energizes people,” “provides coaching rather than commands,” and “inspires followers.” One writer catches the difference without declaring a preference with this: “Pushing is the stick to the carrot of pulling.”

Leaders who pull are enthusiastic, but they are not simply cheerleaders. They have a vision for how to meet the school’s mission—the proverbial Promised Land—which they persistently paint in vivid examples of a land-flowing-with-milk-and-honey specifics: “for every child to know he/she is made in God’s image and can express it clearly before leaving our school.” These leaders compliment followers but challenge them to reach higher, to bring the Word into the child’s world more specifically, and to pull some followers out of the rut of “good enough.”

Pulling takes patience, persistence, and celebrating progress. Pulling runs the risk of leaving followers behind. In my experience as a leader, I tried hard to paint the mission of the school in bright colors, encouraging teachers, trying to show the path up the mountain to students gaining a worldview that would stick in their minds and memory forever. I asked a colleague at the end of my second year how I was doing. He took me off my confidence: “Dan, we all like the vision you have, but you’ve got to look to see whether we are following.” A book I read later summarized this succinctly, “You aren’t leading if people aren’t following.”

Certainly the best pulling is doing what you are asking followers to do. Paul the apostle preached the way but also practiced it, even to the point of inviting followers to imitate him: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). This reminds us of a psychologist who noted that our children will end up preaching what we preach and practicing what we practice. That’s sobering. Jesus invited people to follow him, but it wasn’t a weak request; it was just, “Follow me.” Christ’s disciples learned to pray first by watching him. John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

What is it for you? Do you lead mostly by pushing or mostly by pulling?

Almost everybody believes it is not either/or. Certainly personality and disposition affect any leader’s behavior. Joe Folkman, a leadership consultant, says that it’s “always important to strike a balance between the two styles, push and pull. Leaders who can effectively use both methods have a 77 percent probability of being an extraordinary leader, versus less than 1 percent probability of being an extraordinary leader if only one method is a strength.”

My dad’s impatience at the stand-around crowd at the threshing bee led to his saying, “It’s push, pull, or get out of the road.” The third option is only a good one if we as leaders are just standing around, neither pushing nor pulling. Whether pulling by inspiration or pushing by perspiration, bringing teachers to accomplish the mission of your school is the heart of Christian school leadership.

Pitch in with comments. Are there other advantages or limits to either pushing or pulling? Which is the better of the two?

– Dan Vander Ark

1 Comment

Filed under Governance, Personnel Issues

One Response to Push or Pull: Part II

  1. Clearly a meshing of both strategies is important for success in attaining the school’s mission. We have recently gone through a significant transformation where we are utilizing our mission and vision to make decisions as opposed to our pocket book. The Lord has blessed those efforts, but there are some on the staff that feel it is too much too quickly. Granted, there are unforeseen problems that we must overcome and that were not planned for, but the majority of the staff is excited about the school’s direction. How do we move those that may seem slow to follow? How do we do this in a gentle way that says I want them here, but I also want them to catch the fire?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *