Flight of the Buffalo
Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead
James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer
The authors use examples of herds of buffalo and flocks of geese to explain old and new leadership paradigms. When a head buffalo is killed, the herd just stands around, not knowing what to do. However, when the lead goose is killed, other geese are able to take over and the flock can keep on flying.
A flock of geese represents the new leadership paradigm, which has these principles:
- » 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 encourage others also to learn quickly.
In addition to these principles, there were several persistent themes throughout book:
- » A leader must learn that in most instances he or she is the problem.
- » The customer is the boss.
- » Think strategically. Start with what you need for your customer and work backwards.
- » Everyone must be a leader to have effective leadership.
Of course it all starts with the leader, and the leader will often need a coach to be able to see that he or she needs to get out of the way for employees to have a chance to make things work more efficiently. The authors see many leaders who have “fix them” attitudes, when in reality, it is the leader who needs to change.
As the authors discovered, ordering an organization to operate differently can be like asking buffalo to fly. It is a slow process that must start by asking the people involved what the leader is doing to prevent them from assuming responsibility and performing at a higher level.
The authors offer a method “for transforming buffalo into geese…the Leading the Journey (LTJ) leadership system.” The model is based on four leadership activities: Determining Focus and Direction, Removing Obstacles, Developing Ownership and Stimulating Self-Directed Action.
Determining the Focus
Start with the consumers. Ask them what they want. Ask how you can help them be a great performer. Look at your competition as your best friend. Examine their strategies and yours from your customer’s perspectives. Are you creating value for your customer? Are you focusing on a few problems and ignoring the rest?
The first thing to do is ask your people for their input, using this performance management model: (1) the manager determines the overall parameters/objectives, (2) performers and customers set standards, and (3) expectations are reduced to a specific measurable number. An information system is necessary to tell the employees how they are doing, in real time. A reward system must be aligned and considered fair and motivational.
The boss’s desk may be where the buck stops, but it is important that it is not also where it begins. Delegation of authority can be tricky if the recipient is unwilling or facing ownership for the first time. The leader’s task is summarized in four letters: FCLP. "In every possible situation, Focus Conversation on Learning about Performance." The authors define success as "ownership for the right responsibilities by the right people."
Stimulating Self-Directed Actions
If possible, leaders should prevent problems, not solve them. One of the best ways to do this is to reward people for solving their own problems rather than rewarding people for bringing them to you. It is also important to eliminate nonessential parts of the business. Simplify operations as much as possible and measure what you want to get done. Expect very high standards. Put the right people in the right positions.
The authors conclude with a discussion on the importance of learning. It frequently involves leaving your “comfort zone” and trying new things and moving faster than you or your colleagues are ready to move. When worried about making mistakes, they quote (without attribution) "he who makes no mistakes ends up making nothing."
I really like the symbols of the buffalo and the geese. I like the very human touch of the admission the authors make that they have their buffalo “V’d” up, as in the format of a flock of geese, but they have not yet taken off. There is even an admission that from time to time their head buffalo mentality comes back without warning. Nonetheless, they make compelling arguments for empowerment and continuous learning.
This may not bother most people, but I found it very disconcerting that the book is written in the first person, even though there are two authors. They explain this by saying that they think alike and have had similar experiences, but I could never quite get over wondering who “I” was in many of the stories, and I found that it detracted from the message.
Last Reviewed: October 20, 2011