Leadership: When the Horse Refuses to Drink

A few years ago I decided it was time to actually use my leadership skills, rather than just possess them. It was time to put my money where my mouth was. After much relfection, I realized that one of my strongest skills was as a “cheerleader” for whatever cause was at hand. Rallying the troops, getting people excited and motivated to participate. Generally this has been a successful role for me. I could lead the horse to water AND inspire it to drink.

Not so lately, though. Shortly after I transferred to a new forest, word came around that the agency was forming Green Teams. Perfect! I’m a life-long tree-hugger and was using my move to implement a whole lot of green things in my personal life. Between these and my cheerleaderness, I was ready and willing to take on the job of chairing the local Green Team and getting it going.

There was a lot of energy at first, and we had a great group of core participants. Lots of ideas, lots of great feedback. I knew that a lot of the burden would fall to me, to keep that momentum going and to make sure the ideas were implemented. But then my workload changed, and I felt I couldn’t really take on that much responsibility. Something had to fall off my plate, and leading the Green Team was it. So I sent out a call for help, said it was time for a new chair and who was interested?

The response was worse than underwhelming. It was nonexistent. Not one person has even acknowledged that I have stepped down. Not really surprising, but incredibly disappointing. I honestly expected that my cheerleading efforts would result in something at least a teeny bit sustainable. But they didn’t.

So what now? What do you do when, despite your efforts at leadership, no one will follow? Do you keep trying? At what point, if ever, do you give up? Normally, I wouldn’t give up. I would keep on being my cheerleady self and happily let people follow. This time, though, I just can’t. It’s a matter of stress management — I just can’t do everything right now. The stress of carrying on outweighs the disappointment of watching the Green Team die.

Or maybe it’s just hibernation. While I do my best to let it go, deep down inside I harbor a hope than when people realize it’s up to them to take up the mantle and keep the Team going, they will rise to the occasion. I’ve led the horses to the water. Now they just have to realize how thirsty they are.

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Bill Harshaw

Welcome to the world. (I remember leaving for a new job and explaining to my successor exactly how great my indexing project was and how much it was what people wanted. She listened, and promptly shelved it.) People do what they do. At the risk of over-analysis, people can get tired of being cheer-led and being the followers of someone who gets the limelight.


I do try to keep my cheerleading reasonable – I don’t want to be annoying! But it really chaps my hide to have people (including leadership) say how great and valuable something is, but then not actually do anything to support it. Lip service is meaningless. Cheerleading can sometimes get people over the hump and into action (even if it’s small), but not always. I’ve had several coworkers tell me that my Green Team efforts inspired them to take some personal actions (like changing light bulbs or whatever), but I guess I just hoped that sort of thing would translate into more willingness to participate at work. But everyone is “too busy.” And that’s what REALLY gets me — “That’s great, but I’m too busy” is unbelievably self-centered. We are ALL too busy. Sometimes, like right now for me, we can’t do any more. But most of the time we can eek out a little bit of energy for something we really think is valuable.

And that’s the real difference between leaders and followers: being willing to stand up and/or endure a little hardship for something you believe in.

Dawn Lautwein

Possibly they were more enthused about your enthusiasm than the green project? I don’t feel that I am particularly resistant to change, but I am rather content with things as they are. I could imagine me “catching the spirit” and being a willing participant in a team effort, drawing off others’ enthusiasm, but still not having a strong enough desire for change to take over the leadership.


True enough. In recent years I’ve accepted my role as the cheerleader for various causes — if my enthusiasm gets people going, then so be it. I guess I was just disappointed to see that with out my ra-ra-ing, it died. I was hoping that cheerleading would result in at least a few converts.

Of course, our people are so overworked, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, so there’s a pretty good reason. After all, that’s why I had to step down. I’m still doing little things, like sending out “Greenmails” now and then (emails w/ green info)….just not wearing the mantle as I used to.

Cheryl Wahlheim

I agree with Bill. Part of my duties here at the Office Legacy Management include participation on the Continuous Improvement team. We deflect some of the strangest requests and upper managment does not respect us. We keep plugging along though due to the team leader who is wonderful. If he would step down though who knows if we would be able to or want to continue?