Herding Cattle – A Surprisingly Good Analogy for Leadership

In countries where there are vast expanses of grazing land, such as the United States and Australia, the need to manage, maximize growth and protect the value of large cattle herds occurs with differing approaches to the challenge.

In the United States, hundreds of thousands of miles of barbed wire are held in place by millions of wooden fence posts. This creates a familiar scene for those of us who live in North America. The costs and efforts to maintain fences alone are very substantial for ranchers and require constant vigilance.

In many places in Australia, a different approach is taken to ensuring that the cattle do not wander off and remain under the watchful eye of the cattle ranchers, the water hole. In the vast and unforgiving landscape of the Australian Outback, the reliable waterhole is life. Staying near the waterhole is in the interest of the cattle.

Thus, fences with all of their required time and expenses, are simply not necessary.

While the two approaches are different and are appropriate in different settings, it does beg the metaphorical question of whether it would be better, in the business setting, to manage one’s business through extensive rules and protocols, functioning essentially as fences, or if it would be worth the investment in a company culture of trust and shared values, which would be more analogous to the waterhole?

Challenging the “Tried and True”

Often times in business we follow the model that has been established and has functioned relatively well for decades, if not longer.

The physical commute to the office with all of its time impacts is that model. Physical proximity was assumed, for all eternity, to be absolutely necessary for managerial oversight. Even though one’s physical presence requires great expense for physical building space, utilities, upkeep, and maintenance, it was deemed to be essential. The physical commute to and from work each day, literally steals hours of potential productivity, not to mention the human stress it causes, the environmental pollution it creates, and the use of resources it requires.

The assumption that direct physical oversight of team members is necessary to ensure that they are productive and do not waste company resources, is a paradigm that has been fundamentally challenged during the pandemic. Because many companies were forced to have their team members work remotely and utilize technology to support and facilitate this platform a great experiment ensued. The established norm was forcibly challenged and the results clearly give leaders pause when the question of returning fully to “the way it was” is revisited.

Culture as a Cornerstone

Knowing that it is possible to create a company culture of shared responsibility, support, belonging and trust, the need for “fences” might well be replaced by the “waterhole”.

It is an absolute that team members will make future employment decisions based upon the opportunity to work in an environment of trust that might well eliminate two or more commutes for that person each week. If they can realize 100 workdays a year without a commute, just imagine how attractive that place of business will become.

A positive culture within an organization can not only support the work currently taking place, it can be the foundation for a new working paradigm.

The Payoff

Making one’s business so friendly and supportive to team members that they will need to think very long and hard about ever leaving is a strong leadership move. Seizing the advantage following the pandemic to invest in the company culture that is overtly trusting and mutually accountable could pay great dividends with regard to team member retention and loyalty.

Imagine an entire team that is so loyal to the company that allowing their individual production to slip or their focus to wane, would be akin to walking away from the waterhole.

Something that is simply not in their self-interest.

One juxtaposes that potential model with the singular example of people taking regular sick days for “mental health” reasons, simply to avoid a micro-managing boss or the commute itself.

The thought of rebuilding and maintaining those “fences” in perpetuity seems to be a model worth re-examining.

To read more of our thoughts on how to maximize your workplace, view the rest of our blog here!