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Balancing Leadership: Knowing When to Push and When to Set Back for Optimal Team Performance

Leading a team  at work is like hiking a challenging trail with a team. You’ve got to know when to push forward and when to let your team catch their breath. Balancing these strategies is the key to optimizing performance and achieving success.

I recently had the fortunate opportunity to take 10 scouts and adults on a high-adventure trek to canoe the boundary waters in Ontario, Canada. We spent seven days on the water and covered nearly 100 miles, including portaging (carrying on shoulders) our canoe, gear, and food more than 25 times. This was my third time in the Crown Land Lakes area, and I once again found it to be an amazing source of reflection and relaxation.

One of our days involved paddling 17 miles and portaging 12 times. It was a hard day for everyone. It reminded me of a lesson that I think applies to so many of us in leadership and how we manage our team’s performance.

Striking the Right Leadership Balance Matters on the Trail and in the Workplace

One of the most difficult challenges I find when I am leading youth on a backpacking trip or high-adventure trek is when to push them and when to set back.

When I say “push” I mean keeping or increasing the pace to the destination. For example, there are times when the crew may be performing at a pace that is slower than needed to get to the campsite that night, which could create a crisis event.

A slow pace can also be detrimental at work. We see this when we have a looming deadline, and the team is behind schedule. As a result, we may have to work a weekend or late nights to achieve it, which can cause burnout and harm morale.

“Set back” is short for “setting back,” which is used in sports to mean holding back. In this reference, setting back means allowing the team to slow down to a pace at which they feel physically comfortable, even though it may push out the deadline. Do we have confidence that the team can reach the goal “destination” at their desired pace, and will that pace still support the organization’s needs?

There are real risks to consider in both the push and set back approaches.

And as a leader, you must assess what the team can handle. If I push too hard on the backpacking trail, then there is a point that the participants can physically burn out. It’s something we call “bonking,” which is when your body just says, “I’m done.” The same is true with our business teams in that we can find their performance and quality of work suddenly degrade, because they are mentally and physically exhausted.

This can also drive morale to a point where the team loses confidence in the leader.

Conversely, if I set back too much on the trail, hikers may start thinking about how sore their legs are or how tired they are, and then question whether they can go much further. Likewise in a work scenario, the team may mentally question the feasibility of the project and their ability to achieve success.

This is the mental game that you, as a leader, must manage to ensure your team stays inspired and engaged with the desired outcome.

The key to this is keeping a pulse on your team. Watch their body language and listen to their words. Being aware of their physical, mental, and emotional state enables you to make the best decision.

Also recognize that at times you may be in the same place they are, which makes it even tougher for you to step out of the moment to determine is the right approach for the team and organization overall.

Many of us have been through “death marches” to hit a key deadline. And some of us have seen what happens when teams lose confidence and start to drift in their work, doubting whether the outcome will be achieved. As a leader, you must reflect on whether you do need to push the team, and then balance that with keeping them engaged and inspired.

When we do need to truly grind toward an endpoint, I think of a phrase that is used by military units: “Enjoy the suck.” This phrase means a lot of different things to me. From “We’re all in this together, so let’s make the best of it” to “This really sucks, but let’s find some fun in it.” It implies a sense of camaraderie and togetherness, despite the pain or frustration in the moment.

Leaders Discover Where Excellence and Inspiration Coexist

The art of leadership often lies in the delicate balance between pushing our teams to reach their full potential and allowing them the space to recharge whether you’re navigating the great outdoors or the corporate landscape, remember to keep a watchful eye on your team’s physical, mental, and emotional state. Strive to be the leader who understands when to lead from the front and when to support from the back. By mastering this balance, you’ll not only guide your team to success but also create an environment where everyone can thrive.


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