There are a lot of analogies for leadership that each have strengths to capture various facets. In this blog, I’ve used metaphors such as gardening, shepherding and art directing. I’ve been fascinated by others’ analogies of a symphony orchestra or a peloton of cyclists. Here I want to unpack a new metaphor that’s captured my interest.
Though I live in Calgary, home of “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” I am an uncomfortable Calgarian when it comes to our city’s celebrated Stampede week. Fairly frequently, I’ve found a reason to be out of town that week. So consider these the observations of a poorly-informed city slicker on the remarkable sport of bull riding.
I’m betting that most of my readers don’t know any more about rodeo than I do, so let’s establish a baseline understanding:
- The rider mounts the bull in a chute, with railings preventing the beast from fighting back against this irritant climbing onto its back.
- There is no saddle, but the rider grips a handle connected to a rope around the bull’s chest. He cannot touch the bull with his other hand, but holds on with his knees.
- The chute is then opened, and the clock begins. The goal is to stay on the bull and score as many points as possible against the most challenging ride possible over the next eight seconds.
Recognizing the deficiency in my knowledge, I find the bull riding analogy is fairly apt for organizational leadership. A 2,000 pound bull is much more powerful than the rider, and it prefers to be left alone. It is big enough to go where it wants to go, and there’s little that can be done to stop it or steer it.
A rider will never actually be in control, but does have some control over his experience and the bull’s behavior. He gains points for style and personality—things like maintaining poise, with his hat on and one hand waving the air, driving his spurs rhythmically into the bull’s side.
A bull reacts to a disruption to its status quo by making unpredictable leaps, spins, kicks and jerks, trying desperately to be free of the rider. My observation is that a high-level bull rider draws on a wealth of experience that allows him to keep his balance and even prompt certain reactions. Experience leads him to anticipate movement and lean into what’s coming next.
The point isn’t to merely stay on the bull for eight seconds; to score lots of points, the bull rider must gain style points while having a challenging ride. Few points are scored if the bull is weak or moves predictably, or if the rider loses the ability to follow his game plan and simply reacts. Bull riders will celebrate when they draw the biggest bull with the reputation for throwing its riders, because it’s an opportunity to prove themselves against the best opposition.
All of this to say that a successful ride takes place when the bull’s agenda is met by the rider’s agenda, and the illusion is created that a wild force has been mastered. The bull rider appears to have steered the bull when in reality, he may have merely managed to not fall off.
Likewise, an organization is a big, strong system that offers some indicators of how it will behave, but cannot be controlled. It automatically reacts against a change agent who tries to steer it. The leader tries to stay atop the organization, drawing on a grid of previous experience to try to anticipate, absorb and even steer the organization’s movement. And success for a leader is a bit of an illusion. Those we think of as the greatest leaders proved themselves against seemingly-insurmountable challenges and every attempt from the system to throw them off—leaders like Lincoln and Churchill.
What parallels do you see to organizational culture and the illusions of leadership? What lessons do you draw from this analogy?