As a youthful gent of nine or ten years old,  I would bounce from slumber at the break of an unused fresh Saturday outfitted in my printed PJs and swing through the kitchen preparing a “Capitan Crunch” feast before bearing straightaway towards my morning’s mission.  Capitalizing on my brother’s never-ending zzzs and Mom’s weekly programmed chore ritual, I would swiftly lay claim and appropriate that enchanted place my family had christened the “TV Room”.  My throne embodied a post on the hard floor, cross legged, as close as I could risk without the perpetual admonition of “you’re ruining your eyes”.  Finally!  After tortuous weeknights of my parent’s “Million Dollar Movie” boredom, I possessed power and mastery over the magnanimous magical machine.  I would conduct my colorless, make believe travels enthralled in the lands of heroes and villains.  With their nail-biting gunfights, glorious horses, chair -breaking barroom fights and murderous bank robberies, Westerns became the beloved genre for my inaugural immersion into the human condition.  And if you wanted to make me jump, splash some of Captain’s milk, and smash the daybreak’s tranquility with hyperventilating yelps, just start a Stampede.

Out on the prairie, right when all seemed tranquil and noiseless, rustlers up to no-good would infiltrate the herd and scatter the cattle into a panic.  In a split second, before you grappled it, the entire herd of cattle was racing over the plains; quaking the very ground I sat on.  As the unruly panting mob swung closer to me, kicking up dust and throwing rocks, I could see their blinding determination to run-over everything in their way.  As the camera drew back from the crushing hoofs and snorting horns I could see the thundering mass headed for the edge of a cliff where they were certain to meet a bloody mangled ending.  Then with a shift in music, the Cowboys would kick into action.  And in a flash, the movie’s star would appear from nowhere.  Thrusting his lurching horse forward with his white hat flapping in the air, the Cowboy would begin gaining speed alongside the runaway herd.  With his neck straining forward, he would endeavor to sight the lead renegade bull, and plunge toward that key position right on the herd’s shoulder.  And as he overtook the reckless followers and met the behemoth eyeball to eyeball, the Cowboy would courageously lean into the rush slowly moving it sideways.  Then, with cereal now falling from my mouth, the climactic moment would arrive when the Cowboy discovered himself in front of the herd and on the brink of the cliff ready to plummet to his own peril.  But as his steed tumbled rocks into the deep canyon below, the Cowboy would make one last blood and guts challenge and round the herd towards safety.

In business, a Leader is often faced with having to thwart an out of control stampede headed for danger.  This business pandemonium usually manifests itself as a runaway idea or reckless emotion which can become uncontrollable once set into motion.  As these wild upsurges pick up more and more muck, they elevate a sense of urgency driving energy to a single-minded purpose.   A dangerous purpose that is willing to run over anything that gets between it and the edge of the cliff.  As a Leader you need to be able to turn a bad idea without forsaking your own safety.

Anger and surprise can be strong initiators of rash calls to action.  When confronted with the realization of a major blunder, many managers will look for blood.  They fly into a rage almost with nostrils flaring, and demand to know who made this mistake.  They want someone to go out there, find out what transpired and come back with someone’s head on a platter.  “And if it was so-and-so they better be written-up or they better be fired!”  Most times the situation is more complex than just one individual.  Although it might bring momentary gratification to sacrifice an easy mark, such an oversimplified solution rarely resolves your real dilemmas.  But these are not rational moments.

Sometimes the stampede emanates from a group of people with a runaway idea.  A ringleader decides to go after some person, some program or some concept because they have decided it no longer works.  They quickly enrage the group and generate movement.  As a group, they are forceful.  They can run full speed and they can run people over in their quest to see that nothing gets in their way.  They can easily lose perspective and become unconcerned with collateral damage in pursuit of their personal agenda.

Or perhaps you have seen the stampede that begins of nothing more than pure enthusiasm of a new idea where everyone becomes immediately excited about the possibility of its potential.  All of a sudden, everyone wants to start running and making it happen without thoughts, without plans, and without any attention to the consequences or pitfalls the plan may have.  They are running wild, kicking up dirt and headed for failure.

As a Leader you need to be able to recognize an out-of-control stampede and develop the skills to turn it around before it drives itself and you to the bottom of nowhere.

Begin by staying alert and understanding that stampedes are concocting all around you.  In order to retain your own survival and not be run over, you need to be ready and able to move fast.  Once you perceive the initial rumblings, crank your brain into overdrive, get those synapses popping, and your adrenaline pumping.  If you do not possess the energy, the speed and the stamina to run with the herd they will run away and you will be watching the catastrophe from the back.

Now remember, if the herd breaks they will have the jump on you; so you have to react quickly.  You need to swiftly run alongside of them and gain speed as you out-think them.  Their emotion will slow them down; keep your thoughts moving.  Stay calm and look for your “shoulder” position.  As you reach the eyeball to eyeball position get ready to make your move. Right here is where most managers make a crucial gaffe.  They run in front of the herd and standing with their heels on the edge of the cliff, commence waving their hands in the air trying to convince a bad idea to stop in its tracks.  As you can imagine, these managers end up on the bottom of some devastating results.

Verbalizing your convictions and pontificating your objections will only put you on the edge of the cliff to be run over.  The secret to negotiating the “shoulder position” of an argument is to ask the right questions.  It is the right questions that will turn the debate.  You only need to “lean in” enough to get the emotion to flinch.  From here, you can begin to control and turn the conversation away from those runaway ideas.

So next time your boss wants the head of an important member of your team or you are faced with a run away group, you won’t answer that you “don’t think they are right” or you “don’t think that it is fair”.  Instead, you’ll start by running alongside of them while discussing and agreeing with the problem.  You will ensure they understand that you understand the gravity of the situation and their cry for action.  Share and engage their emotion while always staying on an intellectual plane, all the while gaining ground and preparing to take another direction.  At the right moment you will begin turning the discussion.  Start asking questions!  Go beyond the immediate rush and explore the after-effects.  Open up the perspective of the entire judgment.   “Well if we fire Joe, who’s there to take over and properly manage the program he’s running?”  Or, “That is a great idea.  With our other commitments, how can we find the time to implement it properly?”  Getting a bad idea to stop and think for only a moment about the consequences of stampeding is enough to begin the turn.

As you turn the stampede you will sense the energy drain out of them.  They will suffer with a letdown as they realize the goal they were charging so hard for has been diverted.  A good leader will bring his run-away herd back into the fold gently.  You need to take the fragments that were right and good and direct them back to safety where they can live for another day.  Your boss wanted accountability – this is a good thing.  And your group wanted to improve a situation – this is a good thing.  It is your responsibility to preempt a repeating panic by improving the root causes with a controlled plan that will succeed.

Stampedes are exhilarating and exciting.  They are filled with moments of passion and deep convictions.  But if you watch the movie in slow motion and look into the eyes of the cattle you will see their conviction and passion are really misled fear and anger.  Your job is to be constantly on look out for the possibility of your A-Team stampeding.  If they start running, you need to kick it into high gear, run alongside of them, and gain the “shoulder position” with intelligent provoking questions.  Demonstrating your ability to stay calm in the face of an impending disaster will build your team’s confidence in you and encourage them to run full speed in the right direction next time.  They will trust that if they put their passion, energy and drive into the sprint of a project, you will lead them to higher ground.  Ride tall, keep your eyes open and remember, sometimes you have to “Cowboy Up” if you want to be a Street Smart Leader.

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