Third Phase Coaching | How poor leadership killed the bison


How poor leadership killed the bison

15 Aug 2017, by Dave Paton in Harrison, Leadership



Things often move along steadily until technology changes everything. In the days of American Indian supremacy on the plains of North America the coming of the horse (introduced from Europe by the Spanish) brought a time of plenty as hunting the bison became easier.

Even with horses the Indian hunting parties had to get close to kill with spear or arrow – and the herd responded as prey do to predators – by charging off in the other direction. But there is one way in which bison society differs from antelope or other herds on the african savannah. Bison wait for the leader to set off and then run after him.

Then came the rifle. White buffalo hunters discovered that without the example of the lead bison the herd didn’t respond threats at all. So the hunters lay in the grass out of sight and shot the lead bull. And carried on killing as the rest of the herd milled around confused. Without a leader’s example they were doomed.

This is the ‘Great Leader’ theory of management. One person is the repository of all the wisdom and experience needed for every decision.The role of subordinates is to react and fulfil their orders. And there are times when that’s appropriate. Usually in a crisis with imminent and serious physical, financial or other implications.

This theory is seductive because most of the history we learn at school is about great leaders.  But it’s not really leadership – it’s command. and command is certainly not always appropriate. Not all risks are crises.

So if the ‘Great Leader’ approach is not always right – what are the alternatives? Here’s a link to a YouTube video that gives a 5 minute introduction to the 10 key leadership theories of the 20th Century. Watch it and think about the style of your own leader.

So now you know there are different approaches each of which suits different situations. 

  • The great leader – I do it all
  • the trait approach – round peg for the round hole
  • the skills theory – you can’t lead engineers unless you’re an engineer
  • the style dynamic – autocratic, democratic,
  • situational leadership – no one size fits all
  • contingency leadership- right leader to right situation
  • transactional leadership – mix rewards and punishment
  • transformational leadership – encourage, care and inspire
  • leader-member exchange theory – I get this, you get that
  • servant leadership theory – identify and meet followers needs

If you persuade a ‘Great Leader’ they need another approach they’ll discover they’re Transformational’ – because that one sounds the next most heroic. But the truth is that all these styles have their place.

The perfect approach is a mix of context, the situation and the personality of the leader. And if the herd are not to be led to organisational doom the leader needs to be open to new approaches when the circumstances change.

The good news is that we can all learn to be more flexible. If you’d like to learn more about your leadership style and how you could increase your flexibility contact us and complete your own Harrison Assessment. It’ll take 30 minutes and you’ll be amazed at what you learn.


%d bloggers like this: