Keys for New Leaders

Herding Cats

March 17, 2021 Dr. Charles Boyer Episode 6
Keys for New Leaders
Herding Cats
Show Notes Transcript

#006 - HERDING CATS, a teamwork episode featuring tips and techniques for building a well-functioning team of people in your workplace, church, or community.

Hello there, and welcome!  I’m so glad you’re joining us for Episode #6 of Keys for New Leaders!  This is your host, Dr. Charles Boyer, but I think you know by now that my friends call me Charlie, and that’s YOU, my friend.  If you haven’t already done so, please take a minute and subscribe to the podcast.   If your podcast audio player doesn’t have a “subscribe” button, you may need to copy the URL of this podcast and paste it in your audio program.  Thanks for taking a minute to do this.   These podcasts aren’t sequential – you can listen to them in any order.  However, once in awhile I like to build on things from earlier podcasts.  I’ll need to remind myself to refer you back to the right episode.

This episode is about Team Building, not the all-too-common list of team-building exercises and activities, but how YOU, as a new leader, begin to build a winning team of good people – WHO CAN WORK WELL TOGETHER.  You need the people in place before you can even begin to build a team with them, and assembling those people INTO A WELL-FUNCTIONING TEAM is one of the most difficult parts of your job as a leader.   I call it:  Herding Cats.

Herding Cats. Just picture that in your mind for a minute.  Herding Cats.  Does that sound like an easy task to you?  Well, if it does, you may be in the wrong place, my friend.  It certainly isn’t!   Assembling a team of talented people isn’t easy.  It requires careful and thorough work, made at least a little easier because there are LOTS of brilliant and highly talented people out there to choose from.  Getting them to work well together as a team – now that’s something else entirely!  And that’s where YOU come in!

You may have heard that old saying, “Hire good people and get out of their way.”  Well, that’s WRONG!   You need to hire good people, and THEN SERVE THEM WELL by helping them work together as a team.  I was a university music executive for many years, and I once had a student come in and ask a question something like this:  “Dr. B, just what do you do here, anyway?”  I replied with something like this:  “Do you see this person, and this person, and this person, and what outstanding professors they are?  Well, somebody had to hire them and then help them learn to work well together as a team.  That’s what I do.”

Herding Cats.  Think about that image.  Working with highly talented and motivated people, from prima donnas to pubescents, can at times seem to be very much like HERDING CATS.  Believe me, I’ve been there!   I’m sure it’s the same in any profession.  Management expert and former university president Warren Bennis wrote an excellent book on leadership with the provocative title, “Managing People is Like Herding Cats.”  I recommend it to you.  Then there’s that famous Super Bowl commercial from some years ago, showing a bunch of cowboys rounding up cats like a herd of cattle.  It’s a classic, with over 3 million viewings on You Tube.  It’s still running – I just checked it out a few days ago.

Working with people can, at times, seem to be as challenging as herding cats.  Most of the time, though, people are really great to work with.  It has a lot to do with how you view – and treat – the people you are called to work with.  Remember the old story about the traveler who met a wise old man along the road?  The traveler asked the wise old man, “How are the people in the village just ahead?”  The old man asked the traveler, “How were the people in the last village you visited?”  The traveler said, “They were friendly and welcoming.”  And the old man replied, “So you will find them in the village just ahead.”  Another traveler came along, and asked the old man the same question: “How are the people in the village just ahead?”  The old man asked this traveler the same question: “How were the people in the last village you visited?”  The traveler replied “They were harsh and very unfriendly.”  And the wise old man replied, “So you will find them in the next village you visit.”  The moral of the story?  It’s all in how you look at things and people – your attitude toward people and events makes all the difference in the world! 

Most of the leadership books and articles that I’ve studied are about dealing with people in the workplace, businesses where people can be hired and fired.  We can study the leadership principles involved, but we, as servant leaders, must adapt to working with people in the mindset of helping, of serving others – not to get people to do things out of fear or guilt or losing their jobs, but from a perspective of being called to share their remarkable gifts and talents with others.  A pipe dream, you say?  Well, sorry, but I must disagree with you.  The old days of top-down authoritarian leadership are giving way to a different and more human empowerment model.  A recent article in Inc Magazine reported that good people tend to leave their jobs because of their manager’s lack of humane treatment.  It’s time for General Bullmoose to retire for good!  And good riddance!

This newer concept of leadership is based on Inspiration and Empowerment rather than the old authoritarian or “top-down” model.  People need to feel that their work is significant, that they are a community of people who serve, and that their quality of work is valued.

A word of caution here – this type of leadership does NOT mean that you merely accept what other people want to do.  YOU, as leader, must still hold your team accountable for their actions and results.  It’s a bit trickier if you are working with a team of volunteers, but accountability is still a MUST HAVE.  We’ll talk more about accountability in another episode.

YOU, as leader, must work well with people as individuals, but it is quite another matter to build those individuals into a successful, functional team.  Try herding those cats into the team corral, and you’ll soon experience what I mean!  I know YOU can do it!

Think of any good team, and then think about what the leader has to do to mold talented, high-spirited individuals into a successful, cohesive team.  The Broncos … the Celtics … the Chicago Symphony … the surgical team at a hospital … the teaching team at a middle school … the Olympic teams.   What is required of the leader?  Many research studies emphasize the same qualities:  TRUST, ACCOUNTABILITY, and CLARITY.  There’s that TRUST again.  It’s amazing how many times TRUST comes up at or near the top of lots of lists.  ACCOUNTABILITY is another important part of building a great team.  Shared accountability is a recent trend.  And CLARITY.  The clearer the expectations, the better the team performs.

So, what does this mean for YOU as team leader?  Just this:  YOU must INSPIRE TRUST;  YOU must FOCUS ON PEOPLE; and YOU must CHALLENGE THE STATUS QUO to get things done.  An old favorite quote by Jim Boren comes to mind:  “Status Quo is the EPOXY that greases the wheels of progress.”  And does that ever mean STUCK!  People tend to resist change, so YOU must keep the creative energy flowing to encourage new ideas and new ways to tackle old problems.

Patrick Lencioni wrote about “Five DYS-functions of a Team.”  It’s looking at the negative side of team building, but it’s important to consider the steps – and their consequences.  Picture a pyramid in your mind, and think of these dysfunctions as layers of that pyramid, bottom to top.

The first, or bottom layer is:  Absence of Trust.  Second is Fear of Conflict.  Next is Lack of Commitment.  Fourth is Avoidance of Accountability.  And Fifth is Inattention to Results.  Notice the powerful words and the images they produce:  ABSENCE … FEAR … LACK … AVOIDANCE … INATTENTION.  If you aren’t driving while you’re listening to this, close your eyes and listen to those words again:  ABSENCE … FEAR … LACK … AVOIDANCE … INATTENTION.  What did you notice about your energy level when you heard those words a second time?  Did your energy level rise … or drop?  I’ll bet you said “drop.”  It’s no wonder that any ONE of those DYS-functions can cause a team to fail.

Now, let’s turn those DYS-functions around to a positive.  The opposite of dysfunctional is functional or, as Lencioni says, cohesive.  How does a cohesive team function?  Members of Cohesive teams:  TRUST one another … ENGAGE in unfiltered conflict around ideas … COMMIT to decisions, to plans of action … HOLD one another accountable … FOCUS on achievement of collective results.  If you can, close your eyes for a moment and listen to the positive power of these words:  TRUST … ENGAGE … COMMIT … HOLD … FOCUS.  What did you notice about your energy level when you listened to the positive words?  Which team would YOU rather be a member of?  Which team will YOU lead?

Remember, YOU are the leader.  YOU have been called or elected to lead others – not to do it all yourself, but to look for ways to help others serve and add their talents to the team.  It’s all about people – and finding the right people for the right place to serve where they can be successful.  Too often the tendency is to fill a slot on a team roster rather than first looking for just the right person in the right place.  You may have to choose one from among five well qualified people.  Take the time and trouble to learn which one will be the best fit for the team.  Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, wrote that we should, like great companies, focus on FIRST WHO, THEN WHAT.  Get the best people in the right seats – then figure out WHAT to do and HOW to do it.

Just a word of caution here – I’ve used the term “Right people,” and I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression.  “Right people” definitely does NOT mean the SELECT or the CHOSEN FEW.  It DOES mean finding the right person who has the gifts and talents to join the team and work with others to get the job done.  The right person in the wrong place or at the wrong time is still wrong.  The right person in the right place at the right time  – ahhh, there’s a success.  And remember, you must work closely with the Human Resources people at your place of business to stay in sync with current laws and regulations about hiring and evaluation practices and procedures.

It takes an enormous amount of time and careful work to build a cohesive team, a team that works well together, respects one another, enjoys success and isn’t defeated by failure.  Building a cohesive team requires us to create an environment where things feel right and where things go well.  A tall order, but YOU can do it!

On my blog, I posted an article titled “Five Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Cat.”  You can find the article at

I’m including a link in the transcript of this episode, but here are the highlights:  Working with cats can teach you to:

  1. Lead Without Commanding. Ordering a cat to do anything is a waste of everyone's time and talents. Cats are more likely to accept your leadership if it is offered and not imposed.
  2. Give Them Space. Cats do things for their reasons, not yours. Cats need space to explore, to wonder, to learn, to take charge of their own actions and responsibilities.
  3. Provide Lots of Rewards. Cats need to feel valued and affirmed for who they are and what they do. Rewards, even small treats, mean a lot. Be generous with praise - and don't expect any in return.
  4. Read the Signals. A growl, a hiss, an arched back and a ruffled tail mean "back off!" Pay attention, and try to find out what's causing the problem. Sometimes it's not a good idea to force the issue.
  5. Keep the Litter Box Clean. Well, there are some messes that must be cleaned up as a part of any leader's job, aren't there? Maintain a clean, safe environment in which to do your business, and you'll have much happier cats!

Well, my friend, if you apply these same techniques to people, you’ll have a much happier team.  And you’ll enjoy your role as leader so much more.  Best Wishes to YOU!

Here are some questions for you to answer on your own.  Again, it’s NOT a test, and nobody but YOU will know your answers.  

1.    What is your main takeaway from this episode?

2.    When have you noticed team DYS-functions affecting the success of a team at work, at church, or in your community?

3.    What is one step YOU can take to build a more cohesive team?

The Special Key for this episode is the Key of C:  for CLARITY, for the COURAGE and COMMITMENT it takes to build a great team, and for building a COHESIVE team.

Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of Keys for New Leaders.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it.  Our next episode is about POSITIVITY, the need to maintain a positive attitude in all your work as a leader.  I hope you’ll join me next week.  Until then, stay safe and well, my friend.