When You Must Herd Cats

As I near the end of my first career, I find myself reflecting on valuable lessons as a leader. The phrase “sometimes it’s like herding cats” is one of the first things that comes to mind. The inevitable truth is that even the most effective leader will struggle with finding the most suitable human capital strategy. Put simply, no matter how good of a leader, you will eventually have to herd cats (and sometimes they have claws). I offer both an anecdote and a solution.

The Unwitting Herder

Years ago, I worked in an organization with four fellow technicians of equal rank, and we worked for a senior technician. He was not very effective at motivating my peers to work more efficiently. While a nice person, he lacked the patience required to effectively train someone. Of my four peers, two were alienated followers and one was a passive follower. The other was a pragmatic follower in the sense that he was not going to give anything above minimum effort.

In this environment, I became the informal leader. In other words, our boss gave me a pen, a set of gloves and set me on the path to herd cats. The role of informal leader can prove challenging when everyone’s selfish motives take precedent over the objectives of the organization. I respected my boss and he knew he could depend on me. However, the frustration inherent in this dynamic required creativity and understanding.

Cat Nip, Scratching Posts and a Laser

Through researching the characteristics of each kind of follower I found methods to motivate each of them. I found that the passive follower needed more encouragement than most. Therefore, I put him in charge of small, but important tasks. I also asked him to coordinate meetings and the agenda. I gave him the opportunity to open and close the meeting. The alienated followers were challenging because they had different motivations. However, they both equally loved to debate the initial guidance from our boss. Therefore, I always welcomed devil’s advocate and often ensured that some of their suggestions were incorporated into the final decision from our boss. Once the pragmatic follower witnessed the other three reaped benefits from being involved, he too started offering suggestions. When his recommendations served the group, they were accepted.

Survived Without a Scratch and Great Techniques

I submit that leading individuals of equal rank can be one of the greatest leadership challenges and deserves the idiom “herding cats with claws.”  However, the insight I gained while serving in the informal leader role was invaluable. Viewing the environment from their respective lens enabled me to find common ground and embrace their positive traits.

LaMesha Craft is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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