The Leadership Tool Most Leaders Are Scared to Use…

As a Leadership Engineer and full time federal employee, I live in the same world as the people I most want to serve and support. And for the past few weeks, it has been a real challenge.

For those of you who are familiar with my work, you know that I focus on the idea that when you are doing the work that you are ideally suited to do, the work that takes advantage of your highest “gifts,” (skills, abilities, talents, experiences and desires) your unique natural leadership abilities will come out on their own to be gently tweaked and refined according to the needs of your role and your mission. Well, I confess, recently I was having a hard time believing what I teach. In one instance I’d worked for hours on a project only to have it completely ignored. When I approached my supervisor to ask if he had questions or concerns because he hadn’t moved it along, he simply said, “it isn’t on my priority list right now.” About the same time I learned that my organization had recently changed their policy on tour extensions (something they frequently do but usually provide some generous loopholes), and this time there would be no consideration for extensions and no opportunity for discussion. These highlights were cherries on top of a new unit chief who was “in the shorts” of the first line managers to the point that they were refusing to exercise any initiative without specific instruction for fear of being reprimanded or second-guessed. (Does this sound familiar to any of you, or am I the only one who ever experiences this?)

At the same time that I am feeling all of the frustration, disappointment, anger, physical fatigue, headache and muscle tension of working in that situation, I was also coaching clients. Specifically encouraging them to notice how they were feeling (mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually) because those feelings were indicators of alignment and clues to their best next steps. Yet I couldn’t seem to do it for myself. I felt like a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud. (Not a really good operating place for a leader, an employee, or a coach.)

That said, there are a few things I know without question:

  1. Life, especially the Conscious Leader’s life, is not a flat road. Frankly, it is a road through the Himalayas. There are awe-inspiring peaks and deep, dark, cold valleys. You can’t have one without the other.
  2. Every truly successful leader has a coach through whom the leader has committed to invest in himself. Sometimes the coach GUIDES the leader through the Himalayas, and sometimes the coach ALLOWS the leader to find her own way.
  3. Not every problem can or should be FIXED. Some problems, much like a virus, just need to run their course.

My coach was deliberately “allowing” me to find my own way through an unrelated problem when I suddenly realized that I had the solution to both problems. The solution was the one leadership tool that most leaders are scared…absolutely terrified…to use. The tool is called Stop Pushing. Just stop.

Throughout our careers we’ve been taught that influencing others and having an impact on the mission is the hallmark of our success. We go to classes to learn to set goals and develop action plans to achieve those goals. We then take additional classes to learn to manage our time and increase our productivity. In a different venue we learn that we should be happy and positive all the time so when we don’t feel that way, we push ourselves to “fix our attitude.” We learn to push and push and PUSH. The one thing that we don’t learn is WHEN TO STOP PUSHING! What is astounding is that when we strategically learn to STOP PUSHING and allow ourselves to be PULLED, potentially in a direction that we might have initially judged as inappropriate, we see opportunities that never existed before. Instead of resisting our efforts, exactly the right people become our partners, and everything that was impossible before becomes easy.

I should warn you that this is an advanced level tool. That’s why most leaders are too scared to use it. There is a big difference between abdicating your responsibility or “selling your soul to the devil” and strategically choosing to allow yourself to be pulled. The art comes in knowing exactly what that difference is and when to use the tool. These past few weeks were the reminder that I needed to take my own medicine and STOP PUSHING.

Martha Austin is on a mission to restore passion and purpose to our federal government one individual at a time. She is a current federal employee with more than 23 years of service, a leadership instructor, a certified professional coach, and creator of the Conscious Leadership Blueprint ™. She is honored to serve government employees, and other dedicated professionals, posted domestically and overseas. For additional Conscious Leadership Tips and the strategies to implement them, plus a short quiz to see how you stack up as a Conscious Leader, enter your name and email address at www.consciousleadershipblueprint.com

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Kevin Lanahan

Great post. I know many people have bought into the idea that you have to push ideas through, and they get frustrated when nothing happens. Allowing yourself to be pulled along for a while, especially during turbulent times, can help restore energy and attitude so you are ready to go back to push mode when the opportunity arises. And if the opportunity doesn’t arise, you know it’s time to move on.

Jeffrey Levy

Very interesting piece. If I grasp your point correctly, then I agree wholeheartedly.

One of the things I try to consciously do is not care about things not worth caring about. I think that’s one way to not push.

I also do my best, once I realize we’re going down a path I disagree with, to stop focusing on disappointment and start looking for how to make the best of it.

Martha Austin

Jeffrey and Kevin, thank you so much for your comments. Jeffrey I absolutely agree that “not caring about things not worth caring about” (otherwise known as “don’t sweat the small shtuff”) is absolutely part of it. Another part is being open to the idea that when we are “moving down a path I don’t agree with” not only do we “figure out how to make the best of it,” we take it one step further and be open to the idea that there just might be a larger reason we are going down this path. Which brings me to Kevin’s comments and the concept of allowing yourself to be pulled especially during turbulent times. You do, in fact, get a chance to restore yourself in energy and attitude knowing that when you are open to it, the opportunity will come…and it probably won’t be what you thought it was.

Thanks again for your comments.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Martha. The way I think about this concept is being like water. From Bruce Lee:

Be like water; water has form and yet it has no form. It is the softest element on earth, yet it penetrates the hardest rock. It has no shape of its own, yet it can take any shape in which it is placed. In a cup, it becomes the shape of the cup. In a vase, it takes the shape of the vase and curls about the stems of flowers. Put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Please observe the adaptability of water. If you squeeze it fast, the water will flow out quickly. If you squeeze it slowly, it will come out slowly. Water may seem to move in contradiction, even uphill, but it chooses any way open to it so that it may reach the sea. It may flow swiftly or it may flow slowly, but its purpose is inexorable, its destiny sure.


terrific post Martha. this is a great insight.

Andrew – Thank you for helping me apply the wisdom of Bruce Lee to my government job. Awesome!

Jeffrey Levy

Martha: agreed. By “make the most of it,” I didn’t mean “suffer in silence and grit your teeth,” I meant “look for new opportunities even though you disagreed at the beginning.” 🙂

Dannielle Blumenthal

What a powerful blog post you have written here Martha. Especially this paragraph – I can relate!

<<At the same time that I am feeling all of the frustration, disappointment, anger, physical fatigue, headache and muscle tension of working in that situation, I was also coaching clients. …I felt like a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud.>>

I have a very strong negative reaction to your premise though, even though conceptually I understand it and agree in some cases.

Let me explain.

The people you are talking to on GovLoop are change agents. We need to know when it’s a good time to push and a good time to back off. So for us that advice is good.

However, the people in the real world who are probably not reading your blog – the very senior leadership at government agencies – absolutely need to push and push hard.

Instead, too often, they insulate themselves from the average person in the organization, they issue or authorize communications that relay little meaningful information, and generally they are averse to doing leadership when that leadership involves strong messaging that will provoke conflict and resistance.

To my mind if somebody is collecting a paycheck approaching the $200,000 mark I expect them to stand up and lead like a general in the field. It is morally repugnant to take the money, sit back and “not push” while the people in the field sweat it out trying to get through the day to day.

Again I just want to thank you for calling attention to the emotional aspect of life on the job because it is crucially important to pay attention to it in ourselves and others and too often anything that cannot be measured in hard numbers is dismissed as irrelevant b/c there is no “proof” of its impact on operations.


Martha, I would like to note working I’m working in Detroit were facing a EFM, tremendous frustration from both sides residents and government.

Detroit is like a war zone some days, depending on what angecy I work with and how they see themselves and those they serve. There is no consistency and very little leadership on both sides.

I am navigating in sea of broken souls. There is virtually no accountability from local government. Our own federal government has been a culprit in the breakdown as well. There are plenty of issues and blame.

There are many who are willing to work for solutions they though have been so marginalized they have no concept of their power, I mention particular models used in other parts of the country and I am told in meetings we need to “wait” don’t “push” I am not sure what some citizens are waiting for.

I do have hope though that is certain, there are pockets of resistance through out Detroit working on the ground to ensure a new economy is established. My only concern is just how many I have worked with are certain we no-longer need “borders”. The grassroots movement is strong and it’s viable, new education models and place making are becoming are common in various circles.

Thank you for the post. Much to take in.


Enriqueta Turanzas

It’s an incredible time in Detroit.

Diane Lucas

Martha, love your post. Sometimes, when everything gets the better of us, we need to take a “strategic pause” to let things settle out around us. Not pushing, pausing, letting the workplace catch up to us… We should serve no wine before its time, and some ideas need time to germinate and grow. Thanks for your insights.

Steven Neal

Yes. I see the need for that sometimes, but never though of it as a viable tool. Always assumed that letting the situation or conflict guide ME was “knuckling under” or “letting go of the handlebars”. Maybe it can be like bull-fighting, where you let the bull do all the work, and just step gently out of the way, as appropriate, making it all look seamless, well-planned, and beautiful…

Thanks for the fresh ideas.