Leadership traits: Understand push vs. pull

Leadership Traits

There are a lot of different ways one can conceptualize leadership traits. One of my favorite posts that I’ve ever written is about maximizers and satisficers as two examples of leadership traits or styles. As you might be able to infer from the words, a ‘maximizer’ is basically a hard-driving perfectionist. Nothing can leave the office for a client/customer unless it’s absolutely, 110 percent perfect. If this person is generally nice and you care deeply about working in that field or industry, this is a good boss to have. Otherwise, it can lead to a ton of burnout. You’re always getting “frame-f*cked” on every project you do, essentially. A ‘satisficer’ is more laid-back — projects can leave without being perfect — which makes some Type-A process junkies want to shoot up heroin on the spot, but it can be an effective form of leadership traits in the right context. Everything is always in context. It’s part of the 23 ways to approach leadership.

I also wrote a post back in the day about ‘push vs. pull’ as applies to e-mail. Now let’s apply the push vs. pull concept to leadership traits.

Leadership Traits: Push

Whenever you talk about push and pull in any context, ‘push’ is typically the older-school, more traditional, potentially negative one. In this case, leadership traits connected to ‘push’ include telling, directing, and delegating. It’s all very old school, etc. It’s hierarchy, chain of command, and rank and yank. It’s pretty old-school and it’s what many companies are trying to move away from these days — because hierarchy and chain of command prevent effective flow of information, which prevents effective and swift decision-making, which means you can be easily disrupted.

Leadership Traits: Pull

These leadership traits would include empowerment, collaboration, and coaching — although let’s ignore for a second the dirty little secret that no one really wants to collaborate at work. This is a new-school focus on what ‘leadership’ or ‘management’ should be — it’s more about having a legit mission (not just a buzzword vomit list of core values) and bringing people into that mission, as opposed to the execs deciding everything. Years ago, very few companies would ever think about operating according to ‘pull’ leadership traits. “Empower ’em? I pay those turd burgers every two weeks to hit my targets, don’t I?”

It all changed because of what I said above, though — digital allowed companies to scale a lot faster and find customers in more effective ways than some sales guy going to a cubicle with a Rolodex of Fortune 500 ‘decision-makers’ and cold-calling ’em till he’s blue in the face and gasping for air. As a result, disruption happened in many industries. You can’t disrupt the airlines, potentially, but TV is a solidly first-world industry and the cord-cutter phenom is very real. Point is: anyone can be batted down by a more agile, faster competitor. This is why more people need to be considering change management as a company strategy, but many still do not.

There’s a little bit of irony to this push-pull leadership traits debate, though.

The inherent irony of the push-pull leadership traits debate

Let’s say you have a successful start-up company, and in about 18 months, you’re ready to go from five employees to 50. At the time you were 5 employees, your leadership traits were probably around pull. In such a small company, everyone knows the founder and they’re pulled into that mission and vision and brand value.

Now, most people think that to start ‘scaling,’ you absolutely have to move from pull to push — because to scale, and to create reams of people below the founders, you need a ton of process. This is where most businesses go totally off the rails — and there are turnover stats for start-ups to prove that. (Near zero for 1-2 years, then 40%-plus.)

The truth is, you don’t need a ton of process — you need simplicity in your business around your processes. What most companies do is create a metric crap ton of ‘process for the sake of process’ because that allows certain people to feel more ‘in control‘ of various aspects. In due time, ‘process for the sake of process’ absolutely murders any form of business effectiveness. Suddenly if you want to do one simple thing, you need to jump through 15 hoops. It’s mind-boggling at most places, and it’s largely so that middle managers can puff their chests out and talk about how vital they are as the execs they serve like slaves are getting $50K pops/quarter as they get about 1.4% per annum. You know the game.


Because most companies end up doing process wrong, what you actually want as you scale is your sense of leadership traits to stay as pull — as opposed to navigating to push.

Here’s an article on Harvard Business Review entitled “How Your Leadership Has To Change As Your Startup Scales,” and I’d take some of it with a grain of salt — it has a few good, real-life examples but most of the article has enough buzzwords to kill a fleet of horses. This part is fairly cool, though:

To scale the business successfully, Daniel needs his employees onboard. To get there, he needs to focus on these motivational drivers and shift his mindset from “startup” to “scale up.” The latter requires balancing the “push” mode of leadership (tell, direct, delegate) with a “pull” approach (empower, collaborate, coach), which has been shown to generate greater commitment and creativity in staff members no matter their age or the size of the company.

This is the author talking about some 32 year-old CEO he was working with. I’m 35 and I ain’t no CEO, so this kid has got me beat — and thus maybe you can take a bunch of this with a grain of salt.

So what’s the answer on leadership traits?

There isn’t a definitive one. It’s based on your team and your company. Some teams work really well with one leader and a bunch of heads-down target-hitters who never ask questions about the bigger picture (“push”). Some teams work really well having a bunch of seemingly-fluffy conversations about purpose, mission, and vision. Most teams are somewhere in the middle of that.

The important thing to remember is that leadership traits as a concept — i.e. the way your leaders behave towards their subordinates — crucially impacts dozens of other business aspects, most notably effective flow of information and decision-making. When your decision-making hits the fan, your company eventually tanks. As a result, you need to spend a few minutes here or there thinking about the most effective leadership traits for your org.

What other thoughts you got?

Ted Bauer

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