Herding Cats


Leaders have a unique challenge. How do you galvanise a team of human beings, each of whom have their own individual set of thoughts, feelings, values and beliefs? How do you pull together a senior leadership team, who may also bring their egos and self-interests? How do you resolve the difference between the agendas and desires of an individual, and the needs of the team? That can be a pretty tough challenge for leaders that have a team of employees. Some leaders, such as Managing Partners, have the added complexity of leading partners rather than employees. It’s like trying to herd cats!

We often see these challenges come to life when we encounter potentially stressful events, such as change. Changes bring with them unpredictability, uncertainty and discomfort for many. The status quo, although it may be flawed and ineffective, sometimes seems more comfortable. Change is often effortful and demands more from us. It’s not surprising then that organisations often find it difficult to galvanise their teams to engage with change. I’m sure you’ll recognise the narratives…

Leader says… ““We need to change!”

Team Member thinks… ““I’m not sure I fancy that. I’m pretty comfortable where I am thank you”

Leader says… “We need you to change!”

Team Member thinks… “I wonder if I could make all the right noises but actually do nothing different?”


So, how do leaders approach these challenges?

Recently, I have been studying world class teams to identify those things that differentiate the very best from the rest. I have deliberately sought a very diverse set of teams; from special-forces units, to The Red Arrows, elite sports teams and even the great teams from the Animal Kingdom! Perhaps there are lessons that we can learn from these teams, which will help us to herd these cats. Interestingly, my research into animal teams provides some interesting insights and raises some questions that help human leaders to galvanise their teams.


Why do sheep flock?

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that there are many very good reasons for sheep to flock together. A flock gives them more pairs of eyes to spot predators. Greater numbers give them the ability to confuse a predator. Having greater numbers also reduces the percentage chance of being eaten. This is not an exhaustive list, but it helps us to see that there each sheep has a vested interest in being part of the flock.

If we look at many other animal teams, we see a similar theme. Geese gain an aerodynamic benefit from flying together. Orca hunt as a pod. Collectively they are far more effective. Like other animal teams, such as herds of elephants, the elders play a key role in navigation and also pass on their knowledge and experience.

Of course, the same cannot be said for cats. There is no obvious reason why cats should work as a team. They hunt independently. They don’t depend on each other for their survival. Without a good reason to team together, they choose to operate alone.


The Why Of Teams.

Whilst speaking at an event in the City of London, a business leader asked me an interesting question. “How do I make a group of city traders work as a team?” I replied with a question of my own. Why do they need to operate as a team? What benefit will they find in working together? If there is no strong rationale for collaborating, why would they?

Many of the most successful teams in the world have a strong raison d’etre. The team exists because it provides something of value to the members. In some cases, the team is central to helping the members achieve their ambitions. It’s obvious in sports teams, where the players’ dreams of winning trophies are integrally linked with the success of the team. The same can be seen in rock bands for example. However, this strong rationale for belonging to a team is not limited to sport or music; it also applies to businesses, education, charities, healthcare, the military or any other domain you care to think of.


The Myth Of Teams.

It is possible for some groups to appear to act in unison, without acting collectively. Take a shoal of sardines trying to escape from a predatory marlin for example. To the onlooker, it appears that the fish collectively decide to move in the same direction. However, in truth, they act independently but often choose to move in the same direction. If the predator approached from the right, it’s likely that the sardines would all individually opt to move to the left in order to escape. This gives the impression that they’re making a group decision.

This realisation is key to understanding how we can herd cats. In essence the very act of trying to herd the cats is an attempt to encourage a group of independent thinkers to decide to do the same thing. When we look at the world around us, we see this mass independent decision making regularly. Why do many people make the same buying decisions or vote for the same politicians? The answer is very similar to the reason that the sardines decided to move in the same direction; it is in each of their best interests.


The Myth Of Leadership

This mind-set extends to leadership. We often imagine that leaders lead. In reality it’s impossible for anyone to lead unless there are others willing to follow. A leader without followers is known as ‘a billy-no-mates’. I have found that animal teams seem to show the principles of team working and leadership with incredible simplicity and clarity. Did you know that the pigeon at the front of the flock is not necessarily the leader? Pigeons, like most birds, don’t have eyes that point forwards. Instead they have eyes on the sides of their heads which provide more of a 360 degree perspective. Therefore, the leader doesn’t need to be at the front to be seen, they can be anywhere within the flock and often fly in the middle. So, how can you tell which bird is leading? The truth is very simple. The leader is the one to whom the most attention is directed. When the leader turns left, the flock follows.

In animal teams, the leader often changes according to the task. If they need to navigate, the team will follow the member that has the greatest knowledge, experience or skill to help them get where they wish to go. When the task changes, the team may decide to follow another member who has the ability to lead them through the new task.

If we relate this back to the challenge of galvanising our team of independently thinking humans, it begs the question…

“Why should I follow you?”


Simple Does Not Mean Easy.

The solution to the challenge is relatively simple, but not necessarily easy. In essence we need to understand the strong and compelling reasons why the team is needed, why it benefits the members and why it’s in their best interests to follow the leader. Does the team share the same ‘why’ as the individuals? Is there an alignment between the needs, desires, values and ambitions of the members and that of the team?

In order to fully understand the answers to these questions we need to know the ‘why’ of the team. To genuinely understand its value, we often have to go beyond the headlines and find the deeper purpose. I have worked in many teams that support athletes who are chasing Olympic medals. It is relatively easy to see that the athlete is motivated by the medal, but what about the support team? Why should I, as the sport psychology coach, bust my backside to help an athlete win a small disc of metal on a ribbon? I don’t get a medal. I won’t be famous. I won’t be on the TV or offered the sponsorship deals.

In order to galvanise the team, we need to know why this is important to everyone. It means that we need to know the individuals so that we can match our ‘why’ with theirs. In our Olympic example there is a shared ‘why’. The athlete is able to realise their potential through their sport. In helping them to realise their potential, I realise my own. Therefore, we have a shared ‘why’. By giving my all to the team, I also give to myself and provide myself with an opportunity to achieve my potential.


So, How Can You Herd Cats?

Here are three possible solutions.

  1. Turn the heating off and place a nice warm electric blanked in one corner of the room. Cats seek warmth so are likely to gravitate towards the blanket.
  2. Create a cat sized exit in one corner of the room and place a pack of hungry wolves in the opposite corner. The cats are likely to make a bolt for the safety of the exit.
  3. Impose a 24 hour fast for the cats and then place some food in one corner of the room. The hungry cats are all likely to make a bee-line for the food.    

How can you apply this simple understanding onto your cats?

If you’d like to watch Simon Hartley’s session “On… Herding Cats”, you can become a member of Be World Class by visiting www.be-world-class.com