Flight of the Buffalo
The Challenge of Leadership: Our Personal Journey
The Powerless President
president shifted nervously in his big chair. His youngish face, belying his
early fifties age, was creased with worry. His company was greatly admired and
mentioned frequently in business magazines. His stock sold at healthy P/E
multiples. With his Ivy League training, he was a leading spokesperson for
American business. Yet, now his eloquence had deserted him.
got up, strode to the window, and peered out at the bucolic setting. "Not
on my watch," he said to the huge oak outside his window. "This can't
happen on my watch." After an eternity of silent shuffling of feet and
clasping and unclasping of hands, he whirled and faced me, steel flashing in his
eyes. I've got five years to retirement. What can I do to make these five years
challenge was daunting. The company, despite its favorable press, was failing
badly. They had lost market share in every single phase of their business and
were significantly late in several new product launches. Their cash cow was
under attack by the Japanese. Despite their cash hoard and dominant market
position, the company was in serious trouble. He saw with crystal clarity the
potential danger if the business did not change radically now. The unthinkable
could happen on his watch and he did not know what to do. Nothing in his
previous experience or training had prepared him to deal with this situation.
president's problem is all too familiar. Although he sat in the CEO's chair, he
was powerless to accomplish the changes he knew had to be made. He saw clearly
WHAT had to be done. The management mantra of the nineties was familiar:
teamwork, better quality, improved service, faster time to market. He knew them
well. He preached them to anyone who would listen. Yet, he was unable to produce
any of these vital outcomes in his organization.
had tried valiantly to effect changes. In the last six years he'd instituted
programs designed to stimulate quality, customer service and teamwork. He'd
trimmed the organization, reorganized functional groups into product/customer
focused units, and reduced the number of management layers. Yet, he continued to
lose market share, competitors continued to beat him to the market, and he'd
lost 50 percent of his market value. He just couldn't move his people to do what
he knew had to be done.
know how that president feels. I've sat in the same chair, felt my gut crawl,
and felt like throwing chairs through windows in frustration. I know it is easy
to talk about being different. It is a lot harder to be different. I also know
many other presidents feel very much the same frustration and sense of
leaders face a challenge of leadership. The old models and paradigms no longer
work. How leaders develop, and live a new model of leadership, is and will be
the critical success factor for most every business. It is for mine.
The Old Leadership Paradigm:
The Head Buffalo and the Herd
For a long time, I believed the old leadership paradigm that
told me that my job was to plan, organize, command, coordinate, and control. I
saw my organization functioning like a herd of buffalo. They looked like the
figure above. Buffalo are absolutely loyal followers of one leader. They do
whatever the leader wants them to do, go wherever the leader wants them to go.
In my company, I was the head buffalo.
I liked that arrangement in my organization. After all, my brilliance built the
organization. I wanted people to do exactly what I told them, to be loyal and
committed. I loved being the center of power, and I believed that that was the
realized eventually that my organization didn't work as well as I'd like,
because buffalo are loyal to one leader; they stand around and wait for the
leader to show them what to do. When the leader isn't around, they wait for him
to show up. That's why the early settlers could decimate the buffalo herds so
easily by killing the lead buffalo. He rest of the herd stood around, waiting
for their leader to lead them, and were slaughtered.
found a lot of "waiting around" in my buffalo-like organization.
Worse, people did only what I told them to do, nothing more, and then they
"waited around" for my next set of instructions.
also found it was hard work being the lead buffalo. Giving all the orders, doing
all the "important" work took 12-14 hours a day. Meanwhile my company
was getting slaughtered out there in the market place because I couldn't respond
quickly enough to changes. All this frustrating work as the leader of the
buffalo herd was growing old--and making me old before my time.
The New Leadership Paradigm: A
Flock of Geese
Then one day I got it. What I really wanted in the
organization was a group of responsible, interdependent workers, similar to a
flock of geese, like in the figure above. I could see the geese flying in their
"V" formation, the leadership changing frequently, with different
geese taking the lead. I saw every goose being responsible for getting itselfto
wherever the gaggle was going, changing roles whenever necessary, alternating as
a leader, a follower, or a scout. And when the task changed, the geese would be
responsible for changing the structure of the group to accommodate, similar to
the geese that fly in a "V" but land in waves. I could see each goose
being a leader.
I saw clearly that the biggest obstacle to success was my picture of a loyal
herd of buffalo waiting for me, the leader, to tell them what to do. I knew I
had to change the pictures to become a different kind of leader, so everyone
could become a leader.
Out with the Old, In with the
Rather than the old head-buffalo leadership paradigm, I
developed a new lead-goose leadership paradigm. Crafted in the crucible of
real-time leadership experience, that paradigm is built around the following
This book is about how I became a different kind of leader and
many of the lessons I've learned on my journey. It's also about how I
transformed every person in my company into a leader in his or her own
It Isn't as Easy as It Looks:
The Ved-up Herd
I'd like to tell you that I have achieved perfection: that my
geese are off flying now, that every person is a fully functioning leader.
Unfortunately, that's not true. While I've made great progress, there's still a
long way to go. My own organization is successful. I help other leaders
transform their buffalo into geese. With many false starts and stumbling through
many bad decisions, I've traveled a rocky road to get where I am now. I am still
learning my leadership lessons. So are my dependent buffalo. They are V-ed up as
you can see in Figure 3, but they aren't flying yet.
Preview of Coming Attractions
What follows in the first chapter of Part One is a mid-course
summary of the leadership journey. While every situation is different, I begin
the book with this summary because I've learned the fundamental principle that
every leadership journey is a personal, emotional one, like mine. Changing your
leadership paradigm happens first in your gut.
2 spells out the insight I realized early and return to often: "In most
situations I am the problem." My mentalities, my pictures, my expectations,
form the biggest obstacle to my company's success.
notice that this book is written from a different perspective and this second
chapter spells out that difference. I used to see others as problems. They were
the reason my business didn't perform as well as it should. They were the reason
my plans never worked as well as I thought they would. My effectiveness as a
manager and leader improved dramatically when I learned to see myself as the
problem. I learned that when I see performance that is unsatisfactory the first
question to ask is "What is it that I did or didn't do that caused this to
happen?" Understanding that I am the problem allowed me to learn how to
become the solution. This became the fundamental perspective for my leadership
journey and the foundation for everything in the book.
third chapter lays out the problems I had faced in coping with world very
different from that for which my academic and prior experience prepared me. I
was prepared to be the "leader," to lead the charge up the hill, as
Teddy Roosevelt had done so many years ago, to rally the troops with stirring
words, as Knute Rockne did with his halftime speeches to "win one for the
Gipper"; and to lay out the brilliant strategies that would be extolled in
the pages of Fortune and BusinessWeek. Those paradigms no longer
worked when I showed up to be the leader. I was ill equipped to handle the
realities of leadership in the last decade of the twentieth century. My
difficulties in leading with an obsolete paradigm empowered me to see that I was
Two spells out the fundamental leadership principles I learned during my years
of wrestling with the task of becoming a more effective leader in the age of
intellectual capitalism. These principles became the framework for my journey
into understanding and practicing a new paradigm of leadership.
chapters that follow in Part Two will share the fundamental leadership
How I learned these principles comprises the second part of
the book. Use these principles to take charge of your leadership journey, rather
than just letting it happen to you. You can be the skipper of your ship, rather
than a storm-tossed victim. You can be the driver of this vehicle called life,
rather than just a passenger.
systematic method I developed for transforming buffalo into geese is the Leading
the Journey (LTJ) leadership system. The following model shows the LTJ system.
That system forms the framework for Parts Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven,
much as it formed the basis for my own leadership journey.
journey is fun, and difficult. It is exciting, and tedious. It has moments of
euphoria, and moments of deep despair. Perhaps my story will provide guideposts
to make your journey a little easier. In this way everyone in your organization
can become a leader.
notice that there are persistent themes that appear over and over again
throughout the book. These persistent themes sounded the clarion calls foe me on
my journey.. They are the "red threads" that weave my story together.
Again and again I came back to the following insights:
- In most instances, "I am the problem." My desire
to be the head buffalo, my wanting to rescue people, my previous success,
all get in the way of successfully handling the current situation. Nothing
constructive happened until I recognized me as the obstacle and changed my
- The customer is the boss, not the internal organizational
boss. For too long I insisted that the person in the corner office had to be
served first, with data, with deference, with swift response to requests. We
didn't make the progress I knew we had to make until we started serving the
- Think strategically. I used to begin with what we could be
and then manage forward. We struggled to make inches of progress and usually
finished out of the money. It wasn't until I began with what we must be for
customers and managed backward from that, that we won gold medals.
- Practice the intellectual capitalism leadership style.
Create the conditions where the intellectual capital holders assume
responsibility for delighting their customers. Everyone must be a leader
before there's effective leadership in the new organization.
- Leading is learning. I languished until I realized that
learning faster was the key to my survival. Maximizing everyone's learning
is the key to my organization's success. My organization didn't soar until
everyone became an avid learner.
Watch for these themes. They will reappear throughout the
book. Let them become your guideposts as well.
you're ready to begin the journey, so am I. It will be exciting.
to the journey of the flying buffalo.
QUESTION: What do I know that just isn't so?
LEADERSHIP SOLUTION: Begin the journey