The Push/Pull Theory of Leadership

Article by:
James Gerdsen EO Cincinnati
James Gerdsen
EO Cincinnati

In my 10 years of running a business, I have been reminded and humbled time and again by the paradox of leadership. About five years ago, my life was completely focused on my company. I worked so much that at times, my wife had to remind me to come home and see the kids. I was extremely entrenched in my business because I believed that’s what leaders of businesses did. My reality check came at the hands of my oldest son, Jack.

When Jack was 4 years old, he started to hold conversations. I was away from home so often that I seemed to miss this important part of his life. Looking back at the 48 months of Jack’s life, I couldn’t remember anything cooler than having a conversation with him. Realizing that I was quickly becoming an absentee spouse and father, I knew something had to change. I couldn’t keep investing in my business and not in my family. I needed to find a balance … and fast.

When I launched my business, my focus was on simply growing the company. The success of my business was defined solely on my ability to push the company and my employees for results. I believed that leaders always outworked those around them, but when growth occurred and my sphere of influence diminished, the pushing was no longer effective. My company’s success was limited due to my ineffective leadership style. Worst of all, I became everything I never wanted to be: a self-absorbed, busy beta thinker that was unwilling to trust those around him to pull his family, company and self to the next level.

In pursuit of a new leadership style—one that enabled me to split time between my work and home—I revisited notes from EO learning events, Forum, Universities and miscellaneous journals. I reached out to the best leaders I could find. I hired an executive coach. I even attended the EO Leadership Academy. Throughout it all, I began to realize that the strongest leaders were not pushers; rather, they empowered their employees by allowing them to pull leaders along. It occurred to me that I was pushing my team to the point where they could not, or did not want, to keep up with my pace. As a result, I was compensating for their efforts, leaving me remiss of a home life.

With this knowledge in hand, I came up with what I call the “push/pull theory” of leadership. This theory can be seen in competitive rowing. I spent 12 years rowing, and found that the fastest boats were manned by crews that pulled together. When I was thinking through my leadership challenges, I realized that I wasn’t allowing my employees to pull the “company boat.” To improve, I began to really listen to what was happening. I discovered that training for leadership was low or non-existent. The first directive of my theory was to allow the leaders in the organization to lead. The second was to allow my team to make mistakes and learn from them through daily, weekly and monthly huddles. Finally, I had to stay patient, which is still pretty challenging. By spending more time listening and less time telling people what to do, I was able to revamp my entire business.

Here we are about three years later, and my company has grown 30 percent. I have spent more time with my family than all of the past four years combined, my involvement with EO has never been more rewarding, my relationship with my wife is significantly better and I finally have time for personal development. I believe the key to my continual success is to stay aware of the paradox I learned while on the edge of the relationship with my wife, children and company, and to always make time for what’s most important— my family.


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