All Hat, No Cowboy

At age 25, which was a fast thirty years ago, I was asked to lead a major project. The project had high exposure and would impact many people in the organization for which I worked.

Because I was ambitious, I was excited. Because I was naïve, I had no fear.

I worked hard to get the project ready, to plan out the details, and figure out the logistics. In fact, I remember a few times I worked through the night to create spreadsheets and schedules.

The day came to present my project plan to the management team. I was pumped. I just knew that they would love the beautiful balance of logistical detail and creative solution. Textbook greatness in every way.

I showed them stunning graphics, gave them brilliant handouts, and talked them through elegantly elaborate spreadsheets. It was a tearfully beautiful moment.

Then I concluded, “Thank you. Do any of you have any questions?”


Awkward, uncomfortable, silence.

Then one manager laughed out these haunting words, “So, how long have you been working here, not counting tomorrow?” He was joking. But still, it was not the response I had envisioned.

The management team swiftly moved to table the project until I had a chance to “meet with more people.”

What? Meet with more people? What people? Why?

One member of the management team was designated to work with me. We met. He said, “You have been asked to lead this project, not just design the project. Leadership doesn’t come from a spreadsheet, or a graphic, or a schedule. It happens in relationships. So, until you build a few of those, you will not be able to lead this project effectively. You will be all hat and no cowboy.”

All hat, no cowboy. He was from Wyoming. I had never heard that before. Valuable lesson.

Leadership is in the cowboy, not the hat. Leadership happens in relationships. Have you experienced individuals who try to lead from their desk? Do you know of any who use spreadsheets, schedules, memos, or policies as surrogates for leadership? Those things can be good tools, but they are not leadership. Leadership happens through building and sustaining relationships. Agreed?

Here are five key actions for building and sustaining relationships:

Know What Relationships Matter Most
Know what relationships are most important to your role as a leader and know all you can about each relationship. Who are your 5 to 7 key stakeholders? What do they need and expect? What do you need and expect from them? How healthy is each of these key relationships? Don’t ignore or avoid these relationships. Turn them into awesome.
Build and Sustain Trust
Everything hinges on trust. Think of trust as a ladder. The first rung is integrity (honesty, accountability, transparency). The second is esteem (respect, appreciation, empathy). The third is alignment (clarity, unity, balance). The fourth is capability (skill, practices, synergy). The fifth is success (relevance, results, reinforcement). On which rung is each of your key relationships? What specific actions can you take today to build trust in each key relationship?
Match Your Approach
Leaders adjust their style and approach to meet the needs of the relationship. Are you flexible in your approach? Is the amount of direction and support that you provide appropriate for the given situation? Do you adjust your approach based on need and not just personal preference? What adjustments can you make to strengthen each key relationship?
Balance the Needs
Healthy relationships require a balance of needs. It’s not all about you and it’s not all about the other person. Stephen R. Covey calls this the emotional bank account (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). Are you making more deposits than you are withdrawals? What specific deposits can you make today in each key relationship?
Continually Care for the Relationship
Leaders work everyday on relationships. That’s what makes them more cowboy than hat. Relationships are their ultimate work. So, are you taking time each day to consider the needs of key relationships? Are you attending to those relationships with ultimate care? What can you do today to care for each key relationship?
Be the cowboy, not the hat. Best of success as you build lasting and rewarding relationships. It is what true leadership is all about.

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