Which way are your people pulling?

train-travel-minitime_bill85704_250Do you ever feel like your leadership efforts are like the engine of a locomotive, but it seems like you’re working a lot harder than you have to in order to get somewhere?

Some organizations seem to operate that way. It can take a lot of effort and a long time to achieve results that you expect should have been realized much sooner and without nearly as much pulling.

I think this is more commonly true of volunteer-led organizations like Scouting. Admit it, Scouting isn’t usually our first priority, even though it’s highest in our minds much of the time. We all have families, kids, jobs and other commitments to keep us occupied, so it’s understandable that Scouting sometimes has to take a back seat to other, more important things.

The train engine could represent our efforts to lead a committee, while our committee members could be helping by pulling a rope connected to the train. When everyone pulls, the train makes progress.

Occasionally, someone has to drop the rope for one reason or another. The term not pulling one’s own weight comes to mind, and here’s a good analogy.

Someone who can’t, or won’t, pull their weight can be troublesome, but we may be able to replace them with someone else with the time or inclination to pitch in and help.

What can be more of a detriment is someone who is willing to pull the rope, and pull it good and strong, but wants to pull it in a different direction. The train needs to go forward down the tracks – there’s no way to turn it – but if it’s being pulled by a rope off to the side. That’s almost worse than not pulling at all.

Leadership coach Dan Rockwell sums this up in an article on why servant leaders shouldn’t let others take advantage of them. Yes, servant leadership can be a kinder, gentler way of leading and serving others who serve, but that doesn’t mean the leader shouldn’t offer some guidance and alignment and inspire everyone on the team to visualize and realize the same goal – in the same direction.

Rockwell gives the illustration of how a team member whose efforts and vision aren’t aligned with the team is acting like he’s pulling the rope in a different direction. He encourages us to serve with a sense of helpfulness and to serve those who pull the rope in the desired direction, but to realign or remove those who “pull the rope sideways.”

Why do people pull the rope sideways? It could be one or more of several reasons:

  • They want to be helpful, but don’t know just how to proceed.
  • They can’t connect how their effort relates to the team’s mission.
  • They have their own ideas of how something is to be done, which is incompatible with the team’s general direction.
  • In rare instances, they are resentful of the leadership in place and feel they can do a better job of driving the train.

As a servant leader, you need to step back, examine the efforts of a team member who’s acting against the interests of the team, try to figure out why, and arrive at a way of motivating them to pull straight ahead.

  • Sometimes, all it takes is an explanation of the desired goal and a conversation about how they see their role in its success.
  • They may have perfectly good ideas that, with a little redirecting, can result in big gains for the team.
  • Maybe they just don’t know what their function is, and some helpful mentoring is in order.

Rockwell examines the general topic further in his article and offers some questions you can ask yourself about your way of leading and coaching others. I encourage you to read it.

We shouldn’t have to feel like we’re the “Little Engine that Could”, huffing and puffing over the mountain. The toughest job, sometimes, is getting everyone to pull together in the same direction. Once you do, the train should chug merrily ahead and your team’s goals will be realized.

Image: bill85704 / Creative Commons license


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