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Push and Pull

When I (Jan Jacob) think of Push and Pull, I’m immediately reminded of poesjmepoeljoe, a kind of animal with a head and body facing one direction and another head and body facing the opposite direction, from the children’s book Dr. Dolittle. On second thought, one might question if it really is a children’s book.

Push and pull are key concepts in transition

In a push scenario, you essentially propel yourself and your team in the desired and therefore good direction. You drive the herd forward to a place you believe is good and safe, and where the herd needs to be in the future.

In a pull scenario, you create space for others to move, including towards new, lush pastures for the herd. Pull allows for more individual movement within the herd compared to push. There’s more room for deviation. With pull, you’re leading the way without pushing. You don’t point the direction; instead, you embody the direction that aims to surface during the transition and ultimately crystallize into new patterns, structures, and forms of connection and collaboration.

Where these push and pull impulses in leadership originate is not set in stone. They can come from any team member, as long as they are recognized and acknowledged.

During a transition to the next phase, such as a new stage of team maturity in terms of taking responsibility for the whole rather than just one’s department, you might start with a push and later switch to a pull.


With push, you might say: This is our vision, these are our goals, that’s where we want to go and that’s where we’re headed. Essentially, this is how you lead in change. The only requirement is that participants understand the vision and the goals. They don’t even need to take full responsibility or ownership of the vision and goals during the change.

In push, you set deadlines: This is the deadline for delivery.

When you enter the ‘void’ in a transition process, push no longer works. It ends up scattering everyone in different directions, away from the driving force.

In the void, the new phase of the team begins to crystallize. But how does crystallization happen? By experiencing it, doing it, feeling it. Not by discussing it in advance, as that keeps it external. It’s understood in retrospect, after the new has been done, felt, and experienced. In transition, life must be lived forwards and understood backwards (Kierkegaard).

In pull, you might say: You set the deadline, and I’ll check back with you then.

In pull, it feels like you’re making space for succession. And that’s exactly it: the next phase of the team follows the previous one. For the next phase to be different from the previous one, not just more of the same, it needs to have a different character. Therefore, there must be room for succession, for experimentation, and for reflection—looking back on the experiments.

The big mistake is to mix push and pull. For example, by saying: ‘I want you to take ownership yourself.’ What happens when the team member then takes ownership? Did they do it themselves? Or did they fulfill an assignment and therefore not really do it themselves?

This puts those at whom the assignment is directed in a double bind. Fulfilling the assignment is not right, and not fulfilling it is not right either.

In transition, it is an art to sense the tipping point. And as a leader, but also as a team as a whole, to switch from push to pull at the right moment. From action to sitting on your hands. From steering to making space. From focused leadership to hosting. It means that as a leader, as a pusher, you must be one of the first to be willing to dismantle your own role as a pusher. And to stick to it. Sometimes with clenched teeth.

~ Jan Jacob Stam

This is an excerpt from the upcoming book by Jan Jacob and Dees about Transition.

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