Leadership That Pulls

March 22, 2016

“What made you guys want to write a book about leadership?”

In the back of our new book, The Go-Giver Leader, my go-giver writing buddy Bob Burg and I added a Discussion Guide and set of author Q&A’s — and that was the question we started with.

In our answer, we said that we’ve both been fascinated by leadership all our lives, a fascination fueled by interviewing some of the seminal leadership thinkers of our time — John Maxwell, Pastor Dan Rockwell, Colleen Barrett, Tony Hsieh, Bruce Van Horn, Lolly Daskal, and the like — but that our greatest source of insight and inspiration on leadership has been our parents.

Bob’s dad created a business that was, on the surface of it, a sports, self-defense, and confidence-building school for kids. Really, though, it served more as a school of life — for the kids, and for their parents, too. For Bob (and many others whose lives he has touched), Mike Burg is the original go-giver.

And my dad? He was a choral conductor.

Being a conductor is, by definition, a follow-the-leader business. But just because people are supposed to follow you, even being paid to follow you, doesn’t necessarily mean they will. Or, if they do, that they’ll do so happily.

This I know only too well, from my years as a cellist in the orchestra pit, where conductors are all too often seen as necessary evils, autocratic and ego-bound. (Common joke among orchestral musicians: “Q: What’s the difference between a conductor and a bull? A: On a bull, the horns are placed up front and the asshole is in the back.” Symphony professionals can be a coarse lot.)

Among orchestral musicians there is a favorite story about Fritz Reiner, the brilliant maestro and stern taskmaster of the Chicago Symphony.

Reiner was famous for his tiny, hyper-controlled conducting movements, which represented more or less the opposite of the more dramatic, grand-gesture Leonard Bernstein school. When critics noted that the range of motion of his baton tip could be contained in an area the size of a postage stamp, they were only slightly exaggerating.

One day, as a joke, a double bass player brought a pair of binoculars in to rehearsal. As Reiner began conducting, the bass player raised his binoculars and peered through them at the maestro. Without missing a beat (literally), Reiner continued conducting with his left hand while with his right, he scribbled a hasty note and held it up so the bass player could read it.

It read, “You’re fired.”

That’s one leadership style. My father had a different one.

For fourteen years, my father conducted one of the country’s leading amateur Bach choirs, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For a few of those years, I played in the orchestra and had the opportunity to watch his work up close.

My father’s voice was so soft it was often hard to hear in normal conversation, and on a crowded rehearsal stage, practically impossible. Yet I noticed that when he spoke during rehearsals, not a single musician ever missed a word. Why not? Because when he began speaking, they would grow so quiet a dropped pin would have sounded like the cannon fire in the 1812 Overture.

He would speak — and everyone would lean in, craning to hear his every word.

He pulled them in.

Messiah rehearsalI saw the most cynical, don’t-tell-me New York union musicians turn into putty when my father made a suggestion to start this passage with an up-bow, or to take that passage sotto voce so we could more clearly hear the tenors. People would turn themselves inside out to follow him — and they would follow him anywhere.

There were two reasons for this. First was that he was superb at what he did. He knew this music inside and out; it was in his bones; it was his life.

And second? He treated them with absolute respect. He didn’t tell them what to do; he collaborated with them.

That is another leadership style altogether.

It’s something like the difference between pushing and pulling.

Take an ordinary window fan and place it in a window, blowing inward. Switch it on. How far can you push a column of air into the room? Not far: within a few feet it starts doubling back on itself. But now, reverse the fan’s position so that it is blowing out — and you can pull that column of air all the way from a single open window clear on the other side of the house, even hundreds of feet away.

There is leadership that pushes. And there is leadership that pulls.

How far can you push people? Only so far. How far can you pull them? An awfully long way, if your leadership style embraces total respect for those you lead as its foundation.

When that second kind of leadership speaks — even when in a voice as soft as my father’s — people listen, because they feel valued, and because of that, they trust.

That kind of leadership, we’ll follow anywhere.

Photos: (top) Alfred Mann conducting his NYC choir, The Cantata Singers, in a rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall, 1959; (bottom) pointing out a passage from his Messiah edition to orchestra members.



  1. Mary F. Sloane

    Leadership is like raising a family, it is developed with love and concern for the people you are trying to help. There was a truly great one a little over two thousand years ago. I know the son, so I know the Father.

    It sounds like you are your father’s son…. blessing.

    • John David Mann

      “Leadership is like raising a family” — so true! Thanks, Mary

  2. Adrian

    “Al, you’re graceful as Hell!” — Uncle Bill Owens

    • John David Mann

      Ha! Love that. (For those who are curious: Uncle Bill was my mother’s brother. I think this was a comment made upon seeing my father conduct. High praise.)

  3. Chris T Atkinson

    Thanks John David, another great article. True servant-hearted leadership that has the motive of giving rather than getting. A great reminder. Your and Bob’s dads set a wonderful examples for you both. And you guys are now doing that for others too. As a father, this really hit home on the power my example has to my two young kids (my son currently aged 11 and my daughter currently aged 9). Thank you.

    • John David Mann

      Thanks, Chris — family sure is a powerful crucible for testing leadership mettle!


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