Monday, May 23, 2011

The "Cowboy" Leader

Originally uploaded by AZ CHAPS
First, let's say this - the cattle handler is an integral symbol for American individualism.  The cowboy is rugged, self-sufficient, capable, and level-headed.  He does hard labor in order to protect valuable agricultural assets.  Unlike the images in the old movies, cowboys didn't fight Native Americans - most of that conflict was between the Indians and the American military.  The most common use of a gun was to dispatch a rattlesnake or other varmint that was threatening the herd.

But sometimes the word "cowboy" takes a pejorative tone.  The "cowboy" is rowdy, too quick to the trigger, immoderate in his personal habits, even violent.  A "cowboy" might be wearing the clothes without knowing the job.  He might be a rustler, trying to take what's not his.

The "Cowboy" Leader tries to drive the herd in the direction in which he (or she) wants them to go.   The whip is cracked and the cattle are prodded.  Resistance is met with force until the herd complies.

The false assumption underlying The "Cowboy" Leader's behavior is that the people working for him or her are cattle.  The assumption is that people are stupid and need a strong hand.  The idea is that they, without the direction of The "Cowboy" Leader, would stampede into a canyon and break their respective necks.  And that would cost the "Cowboy" money, so he doesn't take any chances.

This "Cowboy" leader operates with fear as his or her primary method for motivation.  It might not even be a stretch to say that this method is an extension of the "Cowboy's" own fear of making a poor decision, failing to achieve the desired results, or being criticized. 

"Cowboy" leadership can get results in the short term, or in times of crisis.  Temporarily, people are willing to cede responsibility and freedom of choice for the sake of security, or to learn information.  But after a while they either become immune to the fear tactics or they choose to leave the environment.

In the workplace, people have to be there if they need to earn a paycheck.  They may be willing to endure a "Cowboy" if it means that they can feed their families, or add a prestigious entry to their resumes.  But in a volunteer setting a "Cowboy" can mean destruction.  Nobody has to be there, and they won't be there if the environment is hostile - the stress of coping with "The Cowboy" starts to outweigh their commitment to whatever cause drives them to volunteer.

What drives "The Cowboy Leader" in a volunteer setting?  After all, the results don't feed kids or ensure job security.  Sometimes volunteer roles are the first (or only) places where individuals have the opportunity to be at the top of the heap.  They may be passing their own follower experiences down the line, unpleasant as they may be.  They may be so inexperienced that they don't realize the impact of their aggressive behavior. 

But when it comes down to it, the drivers and the experience level aren't important whether in the workplace or in volunteer organizations.  The behavior is what counts, and The "Cowboy" Leader is likely to lose his or her cattle.  If you know you have one working for you, you need to reign them in (cowboy pun noted) before they do more damage.


Lynn Marie Caissie said...

Now that we've identified what the cowboy leader looks like, how DO we rein him in? And for those of us who are cattle, how do we delegate that reining in upwards?

I've been fortunate in that I haven't had to work with cowboys on a daily basis. They usually were seagull cowboys: swoop in, do the cowboy thing, and swoop out.

As for volunteer organizations... they tend to be pretty slow-moving and the temptation to herd rather than work patiently to consensus is present. Not surprising that an otherwise tolerable leader turns into a cowboy!

Julie Poland, certified business coach said...

Trust, or at least some sort of reciprocal relationship, is needed to effectively rein in a cowboy. To some extent you have to earn the right to give the feedback that you know isn't going to go over very well. The right might be assigned to you from the authority that comes from your organizational role, but in volunteer organizations it's all about the informal relationship.

If nobody does anything, natural consequences will ultimately catch up to the cowboy and his or her behavior. The problem is that the consequences can be destructive, even devastating, to the company and the organization.

In addition, failure to reel in this kind of behavior is the same thing as rewarding it. You are setting the bar for acceptable behavior by whether you choose to address it or not. And the habit becomes more and more ingrained the longer it goes on.

A volunteer leader needs to be alert for signs of individuals who need direction and those who will flourish if the leader backs off and lets them do their job. Unfortunately, some volunteer leaders become so without experience being leaders anywhere else, and they haven't learned how to lead through relationship. Some haven't learned yet that there is not only one right answer, either.