Movie cowboy Buck on leadership: Taming managers is like taming horses

June 17, 2011, 11:00 PM UTC

Credit: Cindy Meehl
I recently met Buck Brannaman, the star of the new documentary Buck, at a screening hosted by Tom and Meredith Brokaw. This laconic cowboy cast a spell on the former NBC anchor and his wife, who have a home in Montana and got to know him up there in horse country. Buck cast a spell on me too. He was the inspiration for the best-selling novel “The Horse Whisperer” and was Robert Redford’s technical adviser on the 1998 feature film. These days, Buck crisscrosses the U.S. teaching four-day horse-training clinics and leading corporate workshops for clients like Sprint Nextel and Wells Fargo . When Buck told me that taming difficult managers is a lot like taming difficult horses, I asked him if he would write a Guest Post for Postcards. Here’s the horse whisperer’s take on managing people:

Nine months out of the year, I travel from state to state, hosting horse clinics for troubled colts. You might not think the same techniques that I use to work with horses–non-verbal communication and cooperative effort–could be applied to human beings, but you just might be surprised. Whether you’re working with horses or employees, it’s not about trying to intimidate or impose your will. It’s about reaching towards the understanding that if you can work together, you can both be successful. It’s complicated, but here are three steps that I advise:

1. Adapt. When people come to me with horse problems, I find I’m usually helping the horse with people problems. It’s the horse’s owner that typically needs to adapt to shape the horse into a winner. With horses and employees, resist casting them in an unflattering light, as if they’re some stubborn animal in need of breaking. They need assurance and confidence. If you have an idea, let it become their idea.

2. Detach. Some people call this “conflict resolution” because humans are inclined to see conflict when they encounter a strong will. My advice: Don’t take it personally. You might think you’re pretty important, but don’t flatter yourself. You’re not so important to the horse. If the horse was bucking you off, it’s because you put him in a position where he felt a need to defend himself. Remember the old saying, “He who angers me, owns me.”

3. Dance. Think of the horse as your partner. And it’s all one great dance. That’s not to say it’s always going to be easy or you won’t have to work through  issues. But when a horse is troubled or uncomfortable in our world, rather than show contempt for him, you must demonstrate empathy and work to convince him that you mean him no harm. You have some things that you’d like him to do with you–as opposed to for you. And the best way to do that is as partners.

All that said, remember, there’s no formula. No two creatures, be they horse or human, are alike.