- Training and mentoring start with you as a leader.
- You must create safety and trust at the same time that you set and reinforce expectations.
- Success depends on being realistic about each person’s capacity and skills.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that people are horses, or like horses. What I am suggesting is there are certain universal principles in training. In working with my equestrian trainer to train my youngster (a very large horse with a mind of his own), I’ve experienced firsthand the magic of training like a cowboy. Or perhaps it’s better said, leading like a cowboy.
When you think “cowboy,” you may imagine a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronco. That’s not what I am talking about. Or at the very least, that image portrays exactly what we’re trying to avoid: resistance and misalignment. Once you accept that you cannot force another to do anything, then cowboy leadership makes perfect sense. The cowboy creates the circumstances for the horse to succeed.
Let’s start with creating safety. No one learns well when they are in fight-or-flight mode. While in these modes, the objective is to survive. Horses flee when they are afraid. They “high-tail it” out of there––their legs are their survival. They cannot learn when worried about their safety.
To feel safe, horses must learn that certain stressors such as noises, motion and wind are not life-threatening. Cowboys, as trainers, teach by patiently and deliberately exposing horses to “scary” stimuli in appropriate doses and ask them to stay focused on the task. They do so because the cowboy offers them security. The cowboy and the horse develop a trusting relationship built on more than the daily carrot and “good boy” snuggle. Critically, the relationship is built on consistency and the fact that the cowboy does not “overface” the horse, meaning that the cowboy accurately judges the horse’s capacity and development as well as that day’s emotional state when pressing for performance. Only then can the cowboy provide a learning experience that may be a stretch, but not overwhelmingly so. The cowboy breaks tasks down for the horse and the horse develops confidence. Confident and relaxed horses perform well.
Now put safety, overfacing, relaxation and confidence in the context of training an associate. What we’re really talking about is a healthy culture in which associates feel supported in doing their work, the expectations are reasonable and appropriate given experience, and colleagues are respectful. Like the cowboy, the partner breaks down the assignment for the associate based on the associate’s experience. Consider whether a first-year associate feels safe or overfaced when asked to argue a motion or draft and present a memorandum on complex issues to a client. Think about what it’s like for the associate who delivered poor work product and senses the partner’s anger. Surely the associate does not feel safe.
At the same time that you create safety, you establish black-and-white boundaries for the associate. With a horse, aggressive or playful behaviors such as biting, kicking out or turning its rump (a sure sign of disrespect and even anger) are unacceptable to the cowboy. Call this “setting expectations.” The workplace analogy most definitely includes harassing and rude behavior. Consider also what the horse world refers to as “evasions” and the human world calls “passive-aggressive” behaviors. For a horse, it’s a head toss, bolting across the arena or lackluster foot-dragging gate that says, “I’m trying to avoid hard work.” In the workplace, the behaviors include omissions such as failing to show up for a meeting or “ghosting” email, texts and calls. Other loathsome behaviors include failure to proactively inform the partner that a deadline will likely be missed before being asked or waiting to be reminded to fulfill obvious responsibilities. So yes, the concept of evasions applies in the workplace. And, where there is evasion, learning and performance are poor.
So how does a lawyer become a cowboy leader, implementing this framework daily? Apply these tips to cowboy up!
Follow these tips and you’ll create an environment where associates are chomping at the bit to work for you.