Pushing Doesn’t Work. Pulling is Unreliable. Try Leading Instead.

Seth Godin writes: “Tugboats don’t usually tug. They push.

That’s because pushing is more mechanically efficient than pulling. When we pull, there’s tension and slack in the ropes, and the attachment between the puller and the pushed keeps changing.

But the metaphor gets far more interesting when we think about leading instead.

One bird at the head of the flock can lead 100 others if they’re enrolled in the journey. That bird would never be able to pull (or push) even one bird, never mind all of them.”

Think about how you get things done at work. Are you usually pushing? Pulling? Both are exhausting. When you’re pushing, which includes behaviors like nagging, micromanaging, reminding over and over, you lose both your effectiveness and your influence. After a while, people learn to tune you out.

When you’re pulling, which includes changing direction, allowing the scope of work to creep, and pulling assignments away if they’re not done fast enough or the way you wanted, you squash initiative and make people inclined to simply wait you out rather than take action on their own.

You don’t have to hold a leadership title to be a leader. But you do have to grow before you can show others the way. Jack Welsh famously said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Leading by example is about demonstrating the right way to do things, not just telling people what you think is the right way. They’re watching carefully what you do, not just what you say.

Before you can lead, you’ll also need to prove you can follow. Aristotle said, “He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.” People will be more inclined to follow you when they can see that you’ve put in time in the trenches.  They respect someone who understands what they are going through and what it takes to do their job. Good leaders never think they’re more important than good followers; neither can succeed without the other.

Finally, leading is persuasive, not coercive. Writer Ken Kesey said, “You don’t lead by pointing and telling people where to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” If you can’t make a persuasive case for what you want others to do, you can’t blame them for not following orders. Persuasion first requires that you understand what others need and want. That takes empathy and good listening. Once you’ve committed to helping them achieve their goals, you can ask for their help in achieving yours.

Pushing and pulling are hard, and leading isn’t easy. Figuring out what to do and the right way to do it takes energy and thought. But once you’ve done that work, people will reward you by following  – and maybe, also, by learning to lead,  themselves.

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