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Resist Being the Head Buffalo

It is the 20-year anniversary of the publication of Belasco and Stayer’s management bestseller, Flight of the Buffalo. Since our first management development program more than 15 years ago, LeaderPoint has supplied participants with this book. The timelessness of the book hinges on how people in charge must transform their management mindset to become truly effective. The metaphor they use is changing from the head buffalo to the lead goose. It is worth reviewing this classic in understanding how this transformation must occur and what the significant functions of management are.

When herds of buffalo migrate they are led by a head buffalo. Loyalty to this leader is the key value in the herd. Thus, members of the herd take orders from the head and wait for the head buffalo to lead them. But the head buffalo must stop to rest sometimes, or stop to eat (akin to a manager being out of the office), whereupon the entire herd comes to a stop.

However, when geese migrate, they fly using a “V” formation. As the lead goose, which bears the greatest burden of wind resistance and drag, becomes fatigued, the geese will change positions so that a different goose leads, and the former leader can draft behind the others. In this way, geese can migrate very long distances without ever having to stop.

Strong beliefs in interdependence and responsibility guide the flock, enabling it to accomplish ends effectively and efficiently. Flight of the Buffalo is a journey of two people shedding their "head buffalo" mindset in order to enable people to achieve much greater results.

One thrust of the book is that managers who rely on normal evolution of their management ability will ultimately reach a point where they cannot sustain high performance. Being the head buffalo is a limiting proposition because the manager will soon reach a capacity where simply working harder and longer will not increase results. Eventually the one in charge must rest. More importantly, they must spend time looking into the future and planning for it – but there is no time for that when the other buffalo constantly must wait for the boss for direction. The authors share their frustration of reaching the limits of being the head buffalo, and show that there is a better way.

If the first step toward that better way is recognizing the problem – being the head buffalo no longer works – then the second step is even more difficult: adopting a new mindset for being in charge. Among the challenges the head buffalo might discover:

  • They have the de facto role of chief problem solver. The authors note that they had to overcome the fear or belief that others will “not respect me if I didn’t have quick, good answers.” Not having to know everything was a significant change in approach.

  • They were the primary (if not only) owner. The role of being in charge is very different when the manager sees the role as getting others to own significant problems. But this may not be easy as the authors acknowledge: “As much as I complained about the hard work, I realized later how much I loved it. It was great being important enough to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice and take off for a foreign country.” (p. 246).

  • They stop learning, and inhibit the learning of their subordinates. It is easy to stop learning because there is so little time for reflection, since so much time is spent doing subordinates' work. The leader simply must let other people take responsibility to enable them to learn and develop. Perhaps not surprisingly, they may seem reluctant to accept such responsibility: "The staff, as much as they complained about the old me, liked the comfort of knowing what I was going to do. That helped them figure out what they needed to do. All of us were trapped in this 'death dance' of hating what we were doing but hating more the task of changing it"(p. 83).
According to Belasco and Stayer, the prescription for developing a more effective management mindset starts by understanding the four main tasks of being the person in charge. At the beginning of the book they outline four leadership principles based on their own journey of learning how NOT to be the head buffalo. These principles are worth the effort to understand and apply:
  • Leaders transfer ownership for work to those who execute the work.

  • Leaders create the environment for ownership where each person wants to be responsible.

  • Leaders coach the development of personal capabilities.

  • Leaders learn fast themselves, and also encourage others to learn quickly. (p. 19)
The authors summarize this well, “First, I changed my mental picture of my leadership job. I stopped being the decision maker and micro-manager. I stopped deciding production schedules and fixing sales problems. Instead, I insisted that others handle those situations. I changed my leadership job to providing resources and developing people.”

While Flight of the Buffalo has been around for many years now, it is still a good refresher for managers. In addition to the topics mentioned here, there are numerous other stories, and specific systematic approaches the authors used to execute these leadership principles. We will cover some of these in detail in the next newsletter.

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1Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us 2009.



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