Leaders, Horses, or Something Else

Nov 29, 1999

“You can lead a horse to water, but first, you’ve got to have a horse,” is one of the homilies my old friend Mike Latas of ) used to use all the time. I don’t know where Mike picked that up, whether it was one of his own creations or he heard it somewhere else. But no matter! In the context of a discussion about leadership, he’s absolutely right. You’ve got to have a horse. Unfortunately, too many A/E/P firms end up being run by someone who is not a horse. These people just don’t get it when it comes to what they have to do to run their companies. Because they aren’t “horses,” you can lead them to water (obvious solutions to their management woes) all day long and it doesn’t do any good. The effect of having one of these “non-horses” in the top job is crippling. Inevitably, the company’s growth levels off or revenue declines. Profits become a pleasant memory of the past, but they seem impossible today. And accounting seems to get slower and slower in putting out the monthly financials because they never contain good news. It’s a debilitating leadership malaise. Here are some of the questions you should be asking of yourself to make sure you don’t fall prey to this terrible disease, one that strikes all ages, races, creeds, and technical disciplines: Do I always have to consult someone else before I make a decision? If this is you, stop doing it! Seek your best counsel, if necessary, but learn to start trusting your instincts! No one wants to work in a company run by someone who always does this. Do I like to use committees to make politically difficult decisions for me? If this is you, stop! Don’t forget that a camel is the proverbial horse designed by committee. Most of the time, someone is going to take the heat even if a committee was used to mask who was really behind the decision. The gossip grapevine will see to that. Am I always open to another alternative or another possibility, even after my mind is made up? Some people rationalize this behavior as being “creative,” or “open-minded,” suggesting that people who can actually make up their minds, period, have something undesirable in their personalities. Hogwash! If this is you, learn when to stop analyzing alternatives and act. Do I avoid confrontation at any cost? If this is you, you’ve got a problem. You’re a wimp. No one wants to work for a wimp. Everyone wants someone in the top job who is strong, not weak! That doesn’t mean you have to go looking for a fight, but you can’t run from every one either. Do I stall on making tough decisions in hopes that the problem will correct itself? If this sounds like you, you could be showing the world that you aren’t a “horse.” Speed of decision-making is one of the keys to successful leadership. Time is your enemy. Remember that! Do I surround myself with people I find non-threatening? If your answer is yes, this is not good. You’re going to be unable to lead if you surround yourself with people who don’t challenge you. The challengers will get you to think in new ways. They’ll keep you learning. Do I seem to keep making the same kinds of management mistakes? This is the most important question. If so, you aren’t learning. You must not be a horse. It doesn’t matter if you can see the water; you aren’t going to drink. I’m not one of those people who thinks making mistakes is all that great, especially making the same mistakes over and over again! Get smart. How can you expect different results if you keep doing things the same way? You can’t. When you’ve got the right horse in the top job, it’s hard not to win. Everyone wants to hitch their wagons to that kind of horse! Originally published 11/29/1999

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