On the surface of riding, you’ll find a lot of prescribed, black and white basics on “how to ride.” But understanding the mechanics – like “using leg,” for example (which one, at which time, in combination with what else) – will only get you so far in the world of horsemanship. It’s not how you become a great rider.
The same thing can be said for managers. Almost anybody can read up on “how to project manage” – with gantt charts and burn-downs and status reports. But there is a difference between people who understand the basics of “project management”… and managers who internalize how to truly lead a team.
The difference between competence and greatness in either realm lies in the subtleties of perspective, personality, and how you partner with others.
The characteristics of great riders are the same ones that make great managers:
God, so much trust – at every level, from the start, but especially as the stakes are raised. When you guide a horse over a large fence, you trust that he has the strength and skill to clear it and land solidly. In turn: as he throws himself over it, he trusts that you are doing right by him – that there will be a ground on the other side, that he will not get hurt, and that you will be with him when he lands.
Similarly, it’s so important that you trust a team member to do what he does and do it well – and to sit back sometimes and just “give him his head.” When a developer makes a recommendation, a great manager trusts his expertise; when he pushes back on something, the great manager will trust it’s for good reason. And this trust goes both ways: it’s equally important that you work hard to earn your team member’s trust in return – to always do right by him, watch out for his well-being, and ask of him only what’s fair. He should wholly believe that if he works an all-nighter or relinquishes a recommendation, it’s justified.
Going hand in hand with earning trust, exhibiting good judgment, when entrusted to call the shots, can mean the difference between success and catastrophe. Both management and riding call for a degree of consideration, awareness, intuition and conscientiousness – not only in day to day decisions, but in what we ask of others.
Motivation can be fragile, and having influence over a horse or team member’s morale is something that should not be taken lightly. Great managers engage their teams in challenging tasks, but also ensure that they are positioned for success. Ask too much or put them in a position to fail, and you risk demoralizing them.
The most effective riders know: It is always the rider’s fault; never the horse’s. (The most frustrated riders are those that discount this rule or try to find exceptions.) The horse can do nothing but horse, fundamentally. It is the rider who must take it upon himself to identify and resolve issues; to take ownership of all fall-outs.
A great manager assumes responsibility for everything that may go awry in a working relationship. If a developer does not deliver, it is only because of something like unclear or inconsistent communication, unrealistic expectations, or broken morale – i.e., something that falls within the manager’s realm to correct.
Pretty much goes hand in hand with “Humility” – a great rider absorbs mistakes, makes corrections, and emphasizes fresh starts. He never takes his frustration out on the horse, and exercises tremendous patience in reconciling issues, resolving setbacks or working through a learning curve.
People are innately imperfect. We are all messy and we make mistakes. We have to bear this in mind when working with others, and the best managers look to play the long game rather than dwell on short-term shortfalls. Like great riders, they don’t take their frustrations out on the team, and they don’t sabotage morale by making team members bear the blame for mistakes.
And flexibility. And empathy. Great riders take the time to learn each horse, and invest energy in identifying and riding to its differences. Skittish, sensitive horses require a quiet rider with a light hand; bomb-proof horses may call for a lot of leg, while hot-tempered one may call for a little more “whoa.”
People are not drones, so there is no “one size fits all” approach. There is so much value in learning each team member’s motivations and quirks and then managing to them accordingly – understanding how each person operates and accommodating disparate personalities across a team. Because when you recognize people as individuals by working with their differences rather than quelling them, you also grant them the space and security to showcase unique strengths as well.
With horses, you ASK for things; you never DEMAND them. You do not tell a horse to stop or go or change directions; you ask him to. And if a rider’s default “fix” for issues with his horse is to bind him up and load him down with more gear – rather than rebuild the relationship – then he is failing. (Great riders are as effective with their horse riding bareback as they are with all their tack. It is only the weak, ineffective rider who cannot “control” his horse as he is.)
With both horses and team members: they hold the power. Not you. Standing face to face, stripped of any external factors (crops and spurs; hierarchies and performance reviews); it is inherently them – not you – who has the power of performance at the start. A horse is physically stronger than his rider; a developer wields far more technical expertise than the average PM. Your approach in how you negotiate influence over that physical or mental wherewithal, or convince them to share it with you, is what sets the mediocre rider or manager apart from the great one.
Bad managers bark orders and tell people what to do; make threats and escalate issues to others. Great managers build relationships and ask for things. They perceive the team as equals, and believes that they are not above the team, but rather a member of it.
Even if you’re asking rather than demanding, it’s tough to get much out of the relationship if you don’t know what you want or where you’re going. If you are riding a course, for example, you cannot possibly expect your horse to know which fence is next until you guide him to it.
Same thing goes for managers: you have to carry the knowledge of direction. You are responsible for knowing where the team is going. And although this direction can be defined through discussion and consensus – obviously particularly in the “people” context – you are still the one responsible for driving.
Once you’ve got the direction, you have to make sure that others clearly understand what it is. Both riding and management demand a lot of straightforwardness from those who are entrusted to guide – and part of that is communicating clearly, and in a way others understand.
Great communicators believe that communication breakdown is on the fault of the deliverer. If your message isn’t getting through, it’s on you, not your listener. Communicate in their language and in ways that make the message clear to them. Effective teams have strong communication, and it is largely the responsibility of the manager to ensure that it’s working.
Forget all imagery of the cowboy hollering at his horse and spurring him into a sudden gallop. An erratic, unpredictable, or overbearing rider renders his horse unnerved and uncertain; over time, the relationship breaks down entirely. Great riders are “quiet” riders.
Great managers are sane and cool under pressure. An emotional, volatile or demonstrative manager does little to put a team at ease. Consistency and composure go a very long way.
Truly great riders exhibit an almost unwavering confidence, optimism and belief – in themselves, and in their horses. When the horse’s confidence flounders, a great rider has enough of it to carry both of them, and will work hard to build the horse back up.
Great managers carry the torch; they have enough strength and belief to support the entire team if need be. This isn’t about “hiding” emotion – you should still be a real person with your team. Rather, the confidence should be deeply-rooted and far-reaching – both sincere and shared.
If you do not deeply care about your horse’s physical or mental well-being, then you have absolutely no business working with him. Obviously the same goes for people.
I have said before that the absolute most important thing is that you treat your team right. They are your everything. If you don’t understand this or don’t agree with it, then you should not be managing one. Embody your team’s cares and concerns; get them what they need; protect them against distress. Above all, take care of them.
In short: do right by those with whom you work – especially those you are entrusted to guide – and they will probably do right by you.