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Leadership is Like Herding Tigers

You may be familiar with the phrase “herding cats” – a term used to describe attempts to corral unwieldy folks or processes. In a slight twist, author, speaker, advisor and self-described “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry likens the effort of managing creative people as “herding tigers.” In fact, it’s the title of his latest book. I recently heard Todd speak at Dooley Media’s Social Media Show & Tell—a quarterly event that gathers media professionals to share what they are learning. At the Show & Tell, Todd talked about all things leadership—specifically for leaders of creative teams; however, I posit these insights are critical to leaders of all kinds of teams.

Teams need three things from their leaders.

1) Stability: by giving clarity around objectives and processes and providing protection.

2) Challenge: by giving permission to take risks and expressing faith and confidence in their team’s ability to be brilliant and meet objectives.

3) Trust: by being consistently trustworthy. Trust undergirds everything and is the currency of creative teams. It’s not a bank account with various balances and opportunities for withdrawals and deposits. Rather, it’s a water balloon that becomes entirely deflated at the slighted pinprick and cannot be refilled without significant repair.

While trust is a consistent ingredient for strong leadership, there is an inherent tension between stability and challenge (as depicted in the graphic). Teams that experience low stability and high challenge are often angry; teams that experience low stability and low challenge are often aimless and lost; teams describe the intersection of low challenge and high stability as being “stuck”; while the sweet spot of a thriving team lies in the domain of high stability and high challenge.

Leaders need to articulate their philosophies.

While paying attention to stability, challenge, and trust, it is also important for leaders to articulate their philosophies around what they value (e.g. how they assess quality of work, their take on risk and failure, quantifying what makes a “good idea” a good idea, sharing how credit gets attributed, their method of addressing conflict and resolution, and transparency about how opportunities emerge (who gets promoted and why).

“If leaders don’t articulate [these things], their teams will make it up as they go.”

– Todd Henry

Leadership is multifaceted.

Todd shared several additional, encouraging insights for leaders to maximize their own capacities and to elicit talent in others. Among them were:

–Be brave.

–Keep your rough edges. Over time, organizational norms tend to round off rough edges, making for a more homogenous mix. Your rough edges are what distinguishes you from everyone else.

–Loosen your grip by learning the difference between influence and control.

–Unleash the people around you.

–Be a leader who makes echoes.

In my career, I’ve experienced many styles of leadership. Currently, I work for a strengths-based organization. As I listened to Todd speak, I was filtering the content through the lens of character strengths. My ears perked up when he mentioned that good leaders require:

–Leadership (check)

–Bravery (yep)

–Prudence & Perspective (applying the right amount of stability and challenge)

–Honesty & Humility (trust)

–And likely a mix of additional character strengths that have shaped the “rough edges” of their uniqueness and give them strength to wrangle tigers.

In pondering the many nuances of leadership and its implications for teams, I wonder how this information might be relevant to my workplace. Todd’s insights feel spot on as I have felt both buoyed and stretched by the variances of stability and challenge. I’ve witnessed the power of trust as well as the delicate nature of it. I believe we’ve grown stronger as we’ve sought to intentionally recognize and appreciate the unique strengths within ourselves, each other, and the people with whom we work. As an organization that continues to define its course, I believe we will grow even stronger as we define and articulate the philosophies behind what drives us, personally and collectively.

Lead on!

Lisa Scheerer

Meet Lisa Scheerer

Lisa joined Mayerson Academy in February 2014 as manager of strategic projects. In her role, Lisa contributes to the trajectory of the organization by orchestrating internal and external communications, managing various initiative components and designing visual pieces that support the work. Lisa’s work allows for intra-organizational collaboration as well as cross-organizational co-creation. Prior to joining Mayerson Academy, Lisa contributed to an education-focused social enterprise. She was a key contributor to a multi-year, state-based approach to systems thinking for education transformation. She attended the University of Cincinnati, Hillsborough Community College, and recently acquired project management certification from Xavier University.

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