Beating a Dead Horse – Innovative Leadership to the Rescue
By Doug Dickerson
Dakota tribal wisdom says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. However, in organizations we often try other strategies with dead horses, including the following:
* Buying a strong whip
* Changing riders
* Saying things like “this is the way we’ve always ridden this horse.”
* Appointing a committee to study the horse
* Arranging a visit to other sites to see how they ride horses
* Changing the by-laws to specify that “horses shall not die”
* Harnessing several dead horses together for increased speed
* Declaring that “no horse is too dead to ride”
* Providing additional funding to increase the horse’s performance
* Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position
Dead horses in any organization can be burdensome. So what is an organization to do with a dead horse? Before we address that issue, let’s identify what a dead horse is. I define a dead horse as any idea or policy, an established way of doing things that is antiquated, impractical, and stifling to the progress of the organization, perpetrated by someone claiming to be in charge. Here are some practical suggestions for dealing with dead horses.
First, in the most compassionate way possible, declare the dead horse dead. Nothing will ruin the morale of an organization faster than trying to ride a dead horse. Simply put, if the horse is dead then bury it. The life of the organization can’t be hijacked by the memories of what use to be.
Chances are, the person in charge has an affinity for the dead horse. The dead horse might be his after all. However, the team can’t move forward on a dead horse. John Maxwell said, “Teams succeed only when the players have a unified vision, no matter how much talent or potential there is. A team doesn’t win the championship if its players have different agendas.”
Ultimately, the talented team member will leave if the horse isn’t buried. No one likes to play on a losing team. In order to move the organization toward a prosperous future, bury the horse with all of its antiquated ways that are holding the organization back.
Second, get a fresh horse(s). An organization can best move forward with forward- thinking members. In other words, the organization – the stable if you will, needs fresh horses that have not been beaten with strong whips. When aspiring leaders regularly hear, “this is the way we’ve always ridden the horse,” they are having the saddle of the dead horse placed upon them.
Fresh horses in the stable deserve the opportunity to lead the organization forward. Scudder N. Parker said, “People have a way of becoming what you encourage them to be – not what you nag them to be.” Fresh horses (leaders) with fresh food (ideas) can propel the organization to greatness. A fresh horse can take you much further than a dead one.
Third, take the blinders off the new horses. Blinders on a horse are designed to make it focus in one direction on one trail- it’s accustomed to only one way of seeing things. One of the contributing causes of death to the horse was tunnel vision. To move the organization forward with fresh horses means taking off the blinders and opening the eyes of the organization to new possibilities.
Robert K. Greenleaf, in his book The Servant as Leader, says, “Foresight is the ‘lead’ the leader has. Once he loses this lead and events start to force his hand, he is leader in name only. He is not leading; he is reacting to immediate events and he probably will not long be a leader. There are abundant current examples of loss of leadership which stem from a failure to foresee what reasonably could have been foreseen, and from failure to act on that knowledge while the leader has freedom to act.”
When vision is gone out of the leader, when ideas and policies are antiques, the horse is dead. Take the blinders off and let the fresh horses take you to the next level. When the blinders come off, vision is restored. Helen Keller was asked, “What would be worse than being born blind? She replied, “To have sight without vision.” The fresh horse must be allowed to run without blinders.
Finally, let the fresh horses blaze a new trail. Passing the torch in leadership is essential and ideally should be done with affection for the horse that brought you to where you are. There will always be core principles that are the underpinnings of any organization that remain intact such as honesty, trust, and integrity. But in order to move the organization forward, innovative and fresh thought processes must be brought to fruition.
The previous horse got you to where you are, but the fresh horse will take you to the next level. Ideally, it would be nice to make the transition an honorable one. Max Dupree, the author of Leadership Is an Art, said, “Succession is one on the key responsibilities of leadership.” When appropriate, the rider needs to dismount the old horse, and turn over the reins to forward- thinking leadership with a fresh horse.
Innovative leaders are ready to blaze a new trail. Saddle them up, success awaits them.
©2009 Doug Dickerson