Why Leaders Need to Focus on the Whole Stable – Not Just One Horse

By Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek

The top leader’s job is to get others to lead. — Bill George, former CEO, Medtronic

In thoroughbred racing, some people believe it’s all about the horse. But in reality, though the horse is critical, it takes a whole stable to win the Triple Crown.

The jockey can help a horse recover from a starting gate stumble and can pick his way through openings in the field, deciding whether to hug the inside rail amid the scrum of horses or run on the longer, open outside. The jockey makes split-second, life-or-death decisions, signaling the horse with the reins, his legs, and soft entreaties or sharp commands.

Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray once remarked, “Bill (the Shoe) Shoemaker didn’t ride a horse, he joined them . . . Most riders beat their horses as if they were guards in slave labor camps. Shoe treated them as if he were asking them to dance.”

It’s all about group performance

Trainers must prepare a half-ton animal to run at near full speed for more than a mile within the stress and noise of the track. They must build speed, strength, and endurance, all without being able to talk to their athlete about which muscle is sore. Trainers help owners select the right jockey and decide which races to run, avoid, or scratch at the last minute.

Stable owners decide which horses to buy and breed, which trainers and jockeys to hire, which races to enter, and more. The exercise riders, grooms, farriers (specializing in hoof care), and stable hands play a part in ensuring that the horse and jockey perform their best on race day.

Leonard Lusky, president of Secretariat.com (the official web site of Secretariat), told us, “It took the whole Meadow Farm Stable — Penny’s father, Penny, a great trainer, all the exercise riders, the groom who makes the horse comfortable, and the jockey — in addition to the horse’s bloodline. It takes all these parts together to win the Triple Crown.”

Triple crown leadership is a group performance, enlisting anyone and everyone to lead at times, regardless of the organizational hierarchy. Most people think about leadership from the top down, conflating leadership with authority.

But triple crown leadership works up, down, and sideways. Where would Shakespeare’s Henry V be without his “band of brothers”? Where would Lincoln be without his “team of rivals?” Where would the Hobbit Frodo Baggins be without Samwise Gamgee, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Aragorn, and others in Tolkien’s ring quest?

Quit waiting for a business savior

Triple crown leadership unleashes the extraordinary potential latent in people that languishes in far too many organizations. David Barger, president and CEO of JetBlue Airways (a low-cost U.S. airline), advises, “Be mindful that there is incredible leadership all around you. Go find it. Go tap it. Go mine it.”

Article Continues Below

Once activated, such leadership can be transformative for the organization and life-changing for the people involved. Unfortunately, this leadership dynamic is all too rare.

For decades, leadership observers have known that the quest for a brilliant or heroic leader to save our organizations is a false search destined to disappoint. Yet we continue to await such saviors. We focus too much on the traits and skills of the people at the top and their leadership style, whether it be directive, empowering, authentic, transformational, or whatever.

This way of thinking is profoundly limiting and has damaging consequences. Too many workers forgo their own initiative and leadership potential as they defer to their leaders, awaiting direction. Too many leaders step on the initiative and leadership potential of their workers, assuming that, as leaders, they must always have the answers and provide direction.

Focusing on the entire stable

Many people are reluctant to seize the reins of leadership. Jim Unruh, the turnaround CEO at Unisys, told us, “I was shocked at how very senior executives in the organization wanted me to tell them what to do.” Leaders must sometimes go out of their way not to lead, thereby enticing others to step up.

Without unleashing the leadership latent in people, organizations underperform. Most organizations tether leadership responsibility to authority positions. Most leadership models focus on CEOs or departmental heads. They treat leadership as if it were an individual sport or an executive aristocracy. They genuflect to the leader’s vision.

In other words, they focus only on the horse. Triple crown leaders focus on the whole stable, not just the horse.

Excerpted from Triple Crown Leadership – Building Excellent, Ethical and Enduring Organizations, by Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek, © 2012, McGraw-Hill Professional. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *