How Hard Do You Push?

How hard should a leader challenge others to perform or to change?

It’s one of the most intriguing questions about leadership.

I recently lost a client, and I’m sure it’s because I pushed him beyond his comfort level.  He was talking about change, but he wasn’t making it happen.  He had a vision for his business, but when it came time to personify that vision through his own actions, he backed away and played it safe.

I called this out, as politely and professionally as I could.  I wasn’t going to accept his excuses for inaction, nor was I willing to stand idly by while he perpetually deferred the things he’d promised himself he’d do.  So he fired me — as politely and professionally as he could.

Of course, I wonder greatly whether there might have been another way to “get to him” or to unearth some hidden motivation.  I wonder if I was too direct or too critical. I wonder if I sufficiently delved into his resistance to change — whether I really understood where the reluctance came from.

Over the years I’ve had many versions of the “lead a horse to water” conversation.  I agree with those who advocate for the centrality of intrinsic motivation as a driver of individual growth and performance. Yes … and … but …

The most gratifying and effective act of leadership can be holding others accountable to their own potential

There have been times when I was pushed hard, and I liked it. I can remember specific incidents where I wanted to beat the crap out of someone for delivering a message I didn’t want to hear — but then I turned right around and made life-changing decisions as a result of the challenge.  Come to think of it, I guess what I experienced was intrinsic motivation — spurred by an extrinsic kick-in-the-butt.

Challenging others can be awkward and difficult.  It can even put the relationship at risk.  When we challenge another, we have to calculate that risk, while we determine whether our awareness, our timing, and our language are sufficient to the task.  But the most gratifying and effective act of leadership can be holding another accountable to their own potential.

Carl Jung said we only grow when we are willing to put our relationships at risk. I put the relationship with my client at risk by challenging him to do something different, courageous, and dynamic with his business.  I lost the relationship.  So be it.

YOUR PATH FORWARD:  Speaking of challenges — here’s one for you:  Survey your most important business and personal relationships.  What challenges could you — should you — be issuing to hold them accountable to their own potential?  What kind of conversation might open the other to owning that challenge — intrinsically — and thus to taking action?  You might check Steve’s recent blog posts on “Making Tough Conversations Easier” — both Part 1 and Part 2.

About the Author

Jim Hessler
Jim Hessler bootstrapped his way from retail work into a successful career as salesman, sales manager, Fortune 500 executive, and corporate turnaround engineer. Along the way, he developed The Leadership Platform, a proven model for training managers to become sustainably better leaders. It became the basis of his leadership primer, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guild to Building Your Leadership Platform. Jim is the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services.

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