This article is as much a review of the book titled “Flight of the Buffalo” by Belasco and Stayer as it is a description of my journey from software engineer to a technology manager. Although the book was published almost 20 years, the ideas espoused by the authors are very relevant even today as more companies are adopting a flat management hierarchy and implementing agile methodologies.
I was first given the opportunity to lead a project in the early 1990s at the company where I was working as a lead software programmer. It involved the development of a product that was targeted to be the flagship offering of the company. It was an opportunity that I could not pass up because it not only involved the use of cool new technologies, but I also saw it as a good opportunity to get into "management".
As was expected from a project manager, I became the owner of the implementation plan and responsible for the delivery of the product. I had a team of software developers who executed the plan. When there were problems they brought it to my attention. I jumped in, helped them find solutions (whenever I could); I sat in on meetings and helped them make decisions as and when needed. Everything seemed to be fine.
But a few months into the project I realized that it was not moving at the pace that I had expected, and to make things worse, I was working harder than ever before in spite of scheduling and delegating tasks. The team executed the tasks diligently. They reported their progress. I soon realized that I had to work longer and longer hours to keep things moving, especially as the size of the team increased, because I was becoming a bottleneck.
Belasco and Stayer in their book refer to this style of leadership as the “The Head Buffalo and the Herd.” I was playing the role of the head-buffalo. The buffalo in the herd are loyal to their leader. They follow the leader and go wherever he wants them to go. When the head-buffalo is absent, the herd stand around waiting, not because they are lazy, but because they have been trained and conditioned to wait for directives and follow the leader. In a situation like this the herd is vulnerable and can be completely decimated when the head buffalo is removed.
"This approach is based on leaders making decisions and motivating employees to do their job. But the downside is that it also robs leaders of effective power because in order for employees to be motivated to fix a problem or make a solution work, the leader must transfer ownership of the actions to the employees who need to be responsible. People rise to the challenge – when it is their challenge.“
The authors find that productivity and innovation increases when the team works as a “A Flock of Geese” rather than a "Buffalo Herd". Different geese take the lead at different times and their roles change from leader to follower to scout as the gaggle flies in a V-formation. Each goose is responsible for getting itself to the gaggle’s destination and they land in waves indicating that no one is a leader.
In her book, “Art and Science of Leadership and Life Management", the author Afsaneh Nahavandi writes, “When geese fly in the V formation, the whole flock adds considerably more to its flying range than if each bird flew alone. Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the power of the formation. When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing, and another goose flies to the point position. The back geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. Finally, when a goose gets sick and falls out, two geese fall out of formation with it until it is either able to fly or it is dead. They then launch on their own, or with another formation, to catch up with the group."
Following are some key take-aways:
- “Transform ownership for work to those who execute the work. Empower!
- Empowerers are proactive in empowering.
- Empowerers proactively ask questions.
- Empowerers proactively insist on meeting tough standards.
- Empowerers proactively confront people with reality.
- Empowerers proactively support and coach.
- Create the environment for ownership where each person wants to be responsible for his/her performance.
- Paint a clear picture of great performance for the organization and each person.
- Focus individuals on the few factors that create performance.
- Develop the desire for each person to own – be responsible for – his/her own great performance. Stop acting like the head buffalo.
- Engage individuals – their hearts and minds –in the business of the business. If you want them to act like it is their business, make it their business.
- Energize individuals around the focus of business which is to understand the customer.
- Coach the development of individual capability and competence. Anyone’s a coach. Everyone’s a coach.
- Learn faster.
- Learn how to learn.
- Create an environment where every person is challenged to continually learn.
- Leadership behavior does not come easy. It requires learning.
- Leaders focus on great performance for customers. Focus provides motivation to delight customers.
- When the going gets tough, it is usually too late to get going. Anticipate problems rather than solve them.
- Everyone should be responsible for managing the future if he/she doesn’t want to become a thing of the past.
- Manage backward from the future. In other words, begin with the end in mind – the Federal Express example."
Don't be a buffalo. Sign up for flying lessons.