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The Two Oars of Leadership

 September 20, 2018   By John Rutkiewicz


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The Two Oars of Leadership

Imagine yourself sitting in a row boat. In each hand, you have an oar that’s anchored to either side of the boat. You pull on the two oars – simultaneously and with equal force – to navigate the water. That’s how you move the boat to your destination.

The same is true when you’re a leader. This analogy of two oars in a row boat is a simple yet accurate metaphor that reflects the two basic dynamics at play whenever you lead. To lead effectively, you must operate these two elements simultaneously and with equal force. Otherwise, you go in circles.

So, what are these two oars of leadership?

The Definition of Leadership Carries the Oars

People seem to think there’s something magical and mysterious about leadership. We exalt the importance of leadership in our organizations, communities and other contexts. We talk about leadership charisma or leadership style. We focus on power and authority as supposedly vital parts of leadership. We talk about vision and character. Or we think that leadership requires a certain title or role.

At its most basic level, leadership itself isn’t any of those things. Leadership is simpler than that.

Leadership is… Engaging other people to deliver desired results.

Through the years, we’ve seen dozens of definitions of leadership. Many of them are airy and vague, even romantic. I prefer a pragmatic, practical definition of leadership because leaders and managers need a pragmatic approach for the practical, real-world work of leading their organizations and teams.

Assuming you can accept this definition of leadership – engaging other people to deliver desired results – it’s here we find the two oars: people and results. These are the two fundamental dynamics that all of us must keep top of mind and activate as we lead: people and results. Research shows how critical these two dynamics are to lead effectively. Sometimes these two dynamics seem opposed or contradictory to one another. Yet both must be operated in balance and in tandem for you to move your team to where you want to go.

The Oar of People

Think of it this way: If you’re charging up the hill in the field of battle, and you look behind you to find no one there – you are not leading. Leadership requires followership. We lead because we need the help of other people to get stuff done.

The oar of people, however, entails much more than simply having a group of warm bodies that reports to you. The people dynamic of leadership asks a deeper question: Do your people want to follow you? Put another way, do they like you? Do they trust you? Do they feel well-treated by you? Do they believe that you have their best interests at heart?

The good news is that, to engage people as a leader, it’s not about who you are – it’s about what you DO. Leadership is about behavior. So when it comes to engaging people, the “people oar” of leadership involves things like:

  • Listening to your people’s ideas, perspectives and concerns
  • Being kind, respectful and patient
  • Involving your people in problem solving and decision making
  • Understanding what motivates each of them
  • Helping your people navigate their reactions to change
  • Developing your people
  • Coaching them
  • Praising good work

The people side of leadership is essentially the emotional, relational side. It’s about treating your people as human beings. Remember: They were human beings long before they came to work for you.

The Oar of Results

If there’s one oar that leaders tend to pull on the most, it’s the “results oar.” And for good reason. Results are why we’re in business, and they’re what keep us in business. No margin, no mission, as they say.

As leaders in organizations, we need to be ever mindful of creating value, serving customers, growing capabilities, improving our processes, innovating our markets. Simply put: Getting stuff done.

Still, with an emphasis on results, many leaders miss the finer points of what drives results through a team. It’s more than simply telling people what to do. The “results oar” of leadership involves:

  • Setting clear expectations for what success looks like
  • Defining roles and responsibilities
  • Establishing standards and measurements for performance
  • Setting stretch goals
  • Monitoring team and individual performance
  • Ensuring people have the resources they need
  • Giving feedback to redirect people when they’re off track

While many if not most leaders focus on the oar of results – the rational, task side of leadership – it’s still about balance. If we’re pulling on only one oar, we won’t get very far.

How to Operate the Oars in Tandem

As leaders, our days are filled with opportunities to row with both oars, to focus on people and results at the same time. Here are just a few examples of what this might look like:

  • Giving feedback to an employee who's missing on an expectation, and doing it in a way that's factual, respectful and considerate of the person's dignity and worth as a human being
  • Sharing an important change initiative, then openly hearing and talking through the team's thoughts, reactions and concerns
  • Expressing your high standards for a team member, and sharing your genuine belief in him or her to rise to the challenge
  • Stating your goals and direction for the team, then getting and integrating their ideas for how to best implement
  • Praising an employee for doing good work, and sharing the broader positive impact their actions have on the team, customers, or the business

In all of these cases, there’s a blended, balanced approach that marries the needs of people with the need for results. Both can co-exist. What it requires, though, is that you’re mindful and intentional as a leader to practice rowing with both oars.

Simple, Not Easy

I know this idea of leadership as a balancing act between people and results sounds simple, but let me be clear: Simple is not the same as easy.

Rowing a boat is simple, but it’s not always easy. Unexpected winds come up, rocks and rapids clog your path, or you get tired. At times, whether leading or rowing, you’ll even need to favor one oar over the other (at least temporarily), so you can navigate an obstacle, respond to the unexpected, or change direction.

In my next post, we’ll look at reasons why this simple concept of the two fundamental dynamics of leadership can still be very difficult to practice.

In the meantime, consider this:

Which of the two oars are you best at – people or results – and which one needs work? As you reflect, think about this question from the view of your team. What would they say about you? 

At Living As A Leader, we offer a Leadership Development Series designed to produce leaders that can positively shape the cultural environment, reduce turnover and achieve crucial business initiatives. We do this by providing training, coaching and consulting with a focus on pragmatic communication tools for leaders at all levels of your organization.

For more information, contact Steph Collins at

About the Author

John Rutkiewicz

Facilitator and Coach, Living As A Leader®

John has more than 25 years of experience as a leader and manager in fields ranging from sales and marketing to customer service, financial services and human resources. Since 1993, he has delivered facilitation, training, coaching and leadership-development services to help leaders and other business professionals reach higher levels of effectiveness and success.

Email John John's Bio



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