A lesson from a leadership mule

September 13, 2013 

The chief executive who knows his strengths and weaknesses as a leader is likely to be far more effective than the one who remains blind to them. He also is on the road to humility -- that priceless attitude of openness to life that can help a manager absorb mistakes, failures or personal shortcomings.

-- John Adair

There is an old tale about a farmer who had a son. On this farm, they used mules to carry their produce to market. One day, the farmer told his son to take one of the mules and carry a load of vegetables to be sold at the market.

The son said he would be glad to do this and loaded up the mule with the cargo. He then grabbed the rope and started to lead the mule to town, but the mule did not budge.

The son pulled hard on the rope and even got behind the mule and pushed, to no avail. He kept on trying - even yelling - but could not get the mule to move. It almost seemed as though the harder he tried to move the mule, the more the mule was fixed in place.

Finally, the grandfather heard the ruckus and came out to see what the problem was. Upon surveying the situation, he told his grandson to stand beside the mule with a loose rope and just look in the direction he wanted to go. The grandson complied, and after a few moments, the mule started to move.

The moral of this story is that forcing people to

do your will might work sometimes, but there is a better, more effective alternative. You will get far better results if you lead by letting others feel empowered and capable of solving their own problems.

I was working with a father and son team who was having trouble because they were not getting along at all - and that is putting it mildly.

The father was concerned his son would make errors and was trying to coach him by yelling at him and harshly disagreeing with many of his ideas - several of which were quite good. He was using the push/pull approach from the story about the mule.

My advice to the father was to take a loose rope, so to speak, stand by his son and watch without commenting to see what happens. What happened was that the son was shocked by his father's unfamiliar behavior and kept on looking over to his father as he made decisions.

With a loose rope, the father could give his son some autonomy but still be in a position to stop a very poor decision. This was never necessary, though, as the son made more right decisions than wrong.

Over time, with the father standing nearby for support, the son started to grow and become a great leader.

Now go out and look at the way you coach and mentor your staff. Are the methods you are using working? If not, try the loose rope approach. In most cases, you will find it works much better.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by email at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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