Michael Vance, former creative consultant for Walt Disney, tells this story.
One late summer night, he was walking down Main Street USA in Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It had been a busy day and the street was filled with guests making their way to the exits. At the same time, a team of draft horses that pull the trolleys up and down Main Street had been unharnessed. The horses had been working for quite some time and were fatigued. Their handler chose to take the horses straight down through the crowds instead of out through one of the many service exits strategically placed between buildings. Theme parks all have many “hidden” doors and gates to move employees and goods in and out.
The danger was both immediate and imminent. Large tired animals and irritable crowds do not mix. As the handler tried to move the team of horses through the crowd, a supervisor came upon the scene. In a sharp voice and with decisive movements, he began speaking. “Let’s get these animals out of here! Come on, move them over this way! Over here! Over here!”
He was decisive, sharp, insistent, and loud. One would think he was angry and upset over the lack of wisdom displayed by the horse’s handler. No sooner had they moved the horses through an exit and closed the gate behind them, did the supervisor turn to him and say, in a calm but authoritative voice, “Alright, now as soon as you fellas take these horses back to the pony farm, come up to my office and let’s talk about what’s happened.”
He then proceeded to explain the danger, the dynamics as it were, that existed in the situation just handled, and what to do about it in the future. Once again, all 3 Absolutely Necessary, Must Have, Never Fail, Always Present Skills Of An Effective, Successful Leader are clearly demonstrated here. The leader, in this case a shift supervisor:
Understood the times – he saw the situation clearly even when the team handler could not. He understood the “times” in that it was a volatile situation with an explosive combination of fatigued horses and impatient people.
Knew what to do next – this was not the time to assemble a focus group and analyze the potential outcomes should the circumstances remain unchanged. It was time for action and the supervisor knew it. He knew why it was important to do that exact thing at that precise moment. He knew that the likelihood for violent chaos grew exponentially with each passing second. He knew that firm and quick action had to be taken to avoid injury to innocent people.
Was able to command people to make it happen. The combination of his office as supervisor AND his manner of dealing with the situation would and did produce the desired response.
When the horses had been moved away from the crowds and into a place of quiet and safety, he, the supervisor:
Understood the times – the crisis was over, there was no need for sharp, quick action. So he turned to the handler and quietly said, “Alright, now let’s talk about what just happened.”
Knew what to do next – a sharp rebuke was not called for here, not even a reprimand. His history with the handler assured him the handler was ignorant, not remiss. This was the time for education not reprisal. The supervisor understood that the best time for education is usually at the point of failure. He was able to discuss with the handler what happened, why it happened, why it should not happen again, and what to do about it in the future.
Was able to command people to make it happen – his role as leader demanded he do something. He could not just walk away. Thus his role as supervisor gave him the platform to deal with the situation and underscore what future actions would be required of the handler.
Douglas MacGregor has advanced a theory of leadership that has become quite well established. He calls it X & Y leadership. His focus is on the prevailing attitude and demeanor of the leader. X leaders are autocratic, issue orders, and generally lead from the top down. Y leaders are participative leaders gathering a consensus before proceeding.
I propose that the best, the most effective leaders are both. Actually, they are able to assume the manner of both. In the example cited just now, that supervisor manifested both X & Y leadership.
One of the most critical decisions a leader faces is which approach to take. While I address this very critical topic in much greater depth in my book Gold All Over The Floor – How to Tap Into The Most Valuable Asset In Your Company or Organization, I do want to make the following distinction now.
Y style leadership generally deals with and addresses causes.
X style leadership generally deals with and addresses effects.
In the account of the horses at Disneyland, the supervisor employed X style leadership when he took charge, began issuing orders, and directly interfered in the situation. As soon as the critical moment had passed and the horses had been removed from the crowds, he switched to Y style so he could address the cause, engaging those he supervised in a discussion so as to determine the reasons behind what happened and what to do about. There are many, many times in a leader’s experience when both (and combinations thereof, are required.
The most effective leaders understand the “times.” They know what style to use, when to use it, and are quite adept at moving between the two (and its several variations).