Not too long ago, I was rummaging through a second hand book shop in the middle of New South Wales, and discovered a slightly dishevelled copy of the ‘Secrets of Inspiring Leaders Exposed!’
I know, I know. Not your usual holiday page-turner. But my wife seems to tolerate my bibliophillia (amongst other foibles) and I’ve been interested in leadership for years. It had to be done.
Deep in its pages I was introduced to a well renowned (but relatively old) American business book called “Flight of the Buffalo”. I found it rather repetitive and wordy for a relatively simple concept but that’s leadership and management ‘bestsellers’ for you!
James Belasco and Ralph Stayer were considered leadership gurus. Their book encouraged leaders to revolutionise organisations by avoiding the top down, authoritarian style of leadership that we associate with successful business practices of the 70’s and 80’s. An approach that unwittingly encouraged teams to behave like herds of buffalo. Of course, the illustrations provided were actually North American Bison but hey ... you say ‘tomaydo’ I say ‘tomato’.
The point is, buffaloes wait for the lead buffalo to make all the decisions. They rarely break ranks or show initiative. In the bad old days of the Wild West, if the lead buffalo was shot, the herd just stood their leaderless and inevitably got wiped out.
Do you empower or are you a fixer?
How many times do you find yourself falling to the role of the ‘fixer’, the ‘activist’, or the ‘doer’? You’ve been told that ‘servant leadership’ is the way forward so you do your best to serve your team? But does that stimulate initiative and shared responsibility? Hmm...
I think the key to being a successful leader is not to constantly shoulder the burden of decision making but to genuinely seek to empower those around you so that they work as a team, pre-empting problems, and supporting each other’s leadership growth.
When Stephen Covey talked about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People he mentioned that you needed to start with the end in mind. May sound a little cryptic. For ages, I thought he was talking about project management. So I paid it scant regard... I’ve never been that good on time management.
But I’d got it wrong. Starting with the end in mind can actually apply to your week, your day, the next meeting, even a chance corridor conversation with a staff member. So in your day to day meetings with people, remember the poor buffalo and try to ask yourself, “What end do I have in mind?”
What is your leadership intent?
Belasco and Stayer argue that gut or instant reaction to situations are often the wrong ones because we haven’t thought about the outcome. What are we trying to achieve through our leadership?
Over the years, I’ve found the best way to get things done is to enable people to get on and do it whilst being supportive of the team around them. It’s like the flock of geese flying in a ‘V’. Aerodynamically efficient, and as each lead goose begins to tire, they slip back into line and another goose takes the lead. Perhaps an overused comparison, but it’s surely the embodiment of teamwork.
Belasco and Sayer’s book is written as a guide to getting buffaloes ‘V-ed Up’ and flying, which is such a striking image, it'll stick with you. That's a good thing. It'll help you challenge your thinking and remind you to always question your leadership intent - making sure you're actively supporting those around you.
Neil McLean, the Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Academy echoed the same principal at an event a few years ago, and the words have stuck with me ever since: “There are two ways of being creative. One can sing and dance, or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers flourish.”
I know he was quoting Warren Bennis, but I still think it’s a fantastic quote for any flying buffaloes out there, learning to dance.
James Hilder is an Associate Tutor of the Academy. Having joined the Mull & Iona Community Trust in 1998, James has helped establish several new social enterprises in Scotland.