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Are you a push or a pull leader?

It’s a simple yet tricky concept to consider because in different situations the needs may change. But over all, where are your instincts? Where are your preferences?

Change coach Al Comeaux notes that we are hard-wired from an early age to believe the default style of leadership is to push. Ask a child what a boss does and they’ll say, “The boss tells other people what to do.”

Mr. Comeaux accepts that push is needed for deadline-driven work as well as immediate safety and security issues. Crisis situations also usually call for push leadership as there usually isn’t enough time to inspire people to do things.

“But for successful, enduring change initiatives, my research and experience are clear: We have to pull. Pulling is about inspiring people to follow us, engaging people’s emotions and senses and touching people’s feelings. It’s about making something our people’s idea – at least in part. We can’t expect enduring change – change that’s owned by the whole group – to come out of something that’s forced on people and done for distant reasons,” he writes in CEO World Magazine.

He stresses that pushing is one reason why two-thirds of change efforts fail. But what about everyday operations outside of a crisis or deadline? We are in a time when we’re told repeatedly that change is continual. If it is and push is so ineffective for change, should pull be the primary leadership style?

Pia Lauritzen, an adviser to executives and cofounder of Qvest, a technology company that developed a platform for creating responsible organizations in which people work together to reach important goals, says that effective leadership isn’t about giving or taking responsibility but about sharing it. And the vehicle is questions.

“Over the past 15 years, I have studied informal communication and behavioural patterns in large organizations, using a method that encourages people to ask each other questions. Throughout hundreds of companies representing all kinds of industries, leaders seem to have one thing in common: they respond to more questions than they ask. In a recent example from a large manufacturing company, one senior executive received and responded to a total of 31 questions. He asked only nine questions himself,” she writes in PwC’s Strategy + business.

It’s essentially push leadership. A child might say the boss answers questions – tells people what to do.

Ms. Lauritzen prefers leaders ask questions. She says when we ask questions, we automatically activate our ability to reconsider our own position, connect with each other and commit to a shared purpose.

Of course, the leader can ask questions but believe they already have the right answer. The recipient of the question might share that belief or, at least, accept that the boss will have the ultimate say. “When leaders use questions to assume responsibility themselves, they think, talk and behave in a way that puts them at the centre of attention,” she notes. “Leaders who primarily use questions to take responsibility themselves should not expect their employees to feel comfortable asking their own questions and sharing their unique perspectives and input.”

If you want to pull out those perspectives and inspire greater participation, you must frame and ask questions using two other styles. In the first, you think, talk and behave in a way that suggests each individual needs to find their own answers and make their own decisions. You use coaching questions that nudge the respondent to reflect and behave in accordance with what the respondent believes is right. An example: “What can you do differently to improve collaboration with your colleagues?”

The other style urges everyone to co-create the best possible style – shared responsibility. She says the questions are topic-focused and designed to make everyone concentrate on the same things at the same time.

A critical issue is whether when asking the questions the words “you,” “we” or “I” dominate. In a research project that looked at the impact of nearly 16,000 questions asked by employees at 32 companies, her team found the choice of pronoun can have a profound impact on how the people receiving the question behave. “Questions that use ‘we’ had a higher response rate, provoked spontaneous positive responses that were longer and more informative than the average answer, and inspired new questions and conversations. By contrast, those that used ‘I’ often went unanswered and didn’t lead to discussions,” she writes.

The choice of pronouns by the leader signals who is taking responsibility. Using “we” is more likely to help people connect with each other and commit to a shared purpose – and shared responsibility.

“If leaders say they want people to be accountable, it’s up to them to make sure that the conversation doesn’t end with them and the answers they do – or do not – provide. If they want people to come up with their own solutions, leaders must put their own solutions on hold, even if it means they don’t always come across as the most knowledgeable people in the room,” she states.

So whether you are a push or pull leader relates to whether you are a you, we or I leader.


  • If you’re trying to improve two or three leadership behaviours, consultant Scott Eblin recommends a simple scorecard that you fill out at the end of the day listing the behaviours and two spaces beside each, plus and minus. Mark how you fared that day; for example, if you’re working on delegation, items you successfully handed off or moments where you didn’t.
  • Gallup’s mid-year survey of American employees found remote workers seem to be drifting apart from their organization. Only 28 per cent of exclusively remote employees say they are connected to their organization’s mission and purpose, tying the record low for this group in 2011.
  • New research by ActivTrak indicates that workers are ending their day 37 minutes earlier than a year ago. The effect is seen for those working in the office or at home.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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