September 10

Are You the Head Buffalo or the Lead Goose?

Jim Belasco and Ralph Stayer wrote a book called “The Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees” Lead nearly 30 years ago. When I recently reviewed my notes about the book, I was struck by how their insights are still applicable today.

“People Rise to the Challenge – When it is Their Challenge”

The Metaphor

The American Buffalo gathers in a herd and is solely dependent upon one leader. Wherever the leader goes, the herd will follow. Without the leader’s instructions and directions, they cannot function either as a group or individually. The herd’s entire destiny and survival are determined by one.

Goose, on the other hand, not only flies in a fascinating, high-precision formation. But every single bird within the group knows exactly where they’re headed. They are also ready to take over the leadership position at any given moment.


  1. Successful company’s employees feel as though their jobs matter AND that they are significant. They know their input and opinions are included and taken into consideration during day-to-day operations.
  2. For an organization to change, the leader must change. Leaders must be willing to shed old habits and allow employees to participate in the “leadership process”.
  3. To include employees in the company’s decision-making process, managers need to:
  • Stop answering questions & start asking questions
  • Restrain from making decisions for people & let them make their own
  • Hold back in speaking first & instead speak last
  1. The notion that the manager must know everything, respond to every question & problem is not relevant in today’s organization.
  2. Not only can employees solve the problems faster and easier, but once asked to be included in the process, they are proud to help.



Employee engagement (as reported by Gallup) in the world is less than 25% of all employees. 75% are somewhat disengaged. Why? Is this a condition that we need to tolerate because it has been low for so long?

If you agree that to change your organization, you must change the leadership, you might be wondering what that entails. For those who have an interest, I suggest a Five-Point Plan based on Belasco & Stayer’s work:

  1. Determine to work on the two root causes of disengagement: overmanaged & under-led cultures and ineffective & bad leaders
  2. Measure which departments have the best engagement and the worst
  3. Engage employees – make it safe and fun to give ideas to fix problems. Tell them which ideas will be used, which will not, and why not. Implement the good ideas and report back. Do this every week until you have created a new habit.
  4. Identify if poor leaders need to be replaced or developed. Do not waste your time developing someone who doesn’t want to be developed or someone who has significant fatal flaws.
  5. Rapidly develop leaders. Assess their leadership skills, teach them what to do differently, hold them accountable to develop new habits, and measure their progress.



To become a more effective leader, you must have certain mindsets. A couple of mindsets that came out of Belasco’s & Stayers work were already mentioned:

  • It is not possible for the manager to know everything, trying to do this means failure, you cannot respond to every question & problem
  • The manager is not the main problem solver – employees can solve the problems faster and easier

Effective leaders also have certain behaviors. Belasco and Stayer suggest we create communication habits that engage employees:

  • Ask engaging questions and challenge your employees to think more effectively about problems they have been tolerating and would like to solve
  • Whenever possible push back an employee’s request that you solve a problem that they can solve and let them make their own decision with your guidance
  • When asked what they should do to solve a problem, stop speaking first and tell the employee you have an opinion but want to hear their idea first

Be the ‘lead goose’ and help your employees know where they are headed – now more than ever. They need to know where they are flying to. Is there a goal that you can offer to help them feel good about the direction the company is going? Secondly, help them be ready to take over the leadership position at any given moment. One method to do this is by letting your employees identify the problem they experience and the ability to implement solutions. All employees can be leaders of themselves and their roles. Employees who are engaged in fixing the problems they see every day have a better chance of being engaged overall!

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