There’s a great scene in the 1949 John Ford film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that contains a lesson in leadership. You guessed it: they were walking their horses.
What does “walking horses” have to do with leadership? Just this: leaders can and must try to get the best out of their people, but no one can go at a gallop all the time. The savvy leader needs to know when to gallop, when to trot, and when to get off and walk.
Back when I first joined the Air Force, leaders extolled the virtue of working the long hours. The guy who was at work the longest was considered the “workhorse” and admired for his dedication. We all bragged about how little sleep we got and how poorly we ate. That sort of pace can’t last forever, however. Lack of sleep, long hours, and bad food are a recipe for burnout rather than achievement. Thankfully, the culture has changed a bit and today’s leaders understand the benefits of managing the workload.
That’s where Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) comes in. It was standard procedure on long patrols for the cavalry to get off and walk the horses a bit. It allowed the troopers to stretch their legs a bit, and gave the horses a break by taking 200 pounds off their backs. Having enough energy left in the tank (so to speak) meant that when the troop needed to hop on and gallop, horses and riders were ready. If the horses run too far or too long, they will be too exhausted when it comes time to sprint to the rescue of the wagon train.
The experienced leader works with his/her team to develop a “battle rhythm”, a normal pace of business. Every business process/operation has a natural ebb and flow, with periods of “surge” where there’s maximum effort (“gallop”) and periods with much less demand on their personal/organizational resources. One officer I worked with went so far as to map out a 90 day period and code days as “red” (high tempo), “green” (medium/normal tempo), and “blue” (slow tempo) so he could plan ahead for things like employees’ vacation planning and training schedules. As an executive, I’ve made it a practice to look for opportunities to encourage employees when to plan their leave/vacation, and when I had to plan for everyone to be working long hours.
Part of good strategic planning is developing and tracking the pace of operations. Make time in that plan to walk the horses.
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and GeneralLeadership.com.