How to Lead “Mustangs”
By Chip Bell
Barbaro was the 2006 Kentucky Derby-winning horse. He entered the prestigious race without a defeat. The oddsmakers predicted his margin of victory at over six lengths. He was a favorite to win the Triple Crown. Unfortunately, he shattered his right hind leg two weeks later at the Preakness after he false started and ultimately had to be put down. One reporter described Barbaro’s style as having a “mustang-like joy of racing.”
There is a backstory to this memorable event: Edgar Prado, Barbaro’s proud jockey. Unlike most jockeys who generously used a whip, especially on the home stretch, Prado never touched Barbaro with his whip and never asked him to do anything more than was necessary. “If he’s running real hard, why should he be punished?” Prado once told a reporter.
What fosters a “mustang-like joy of racing?” Mustangs run free with no bridle (harness) or passenger to guide their actions. The concept is less about the absence of restrictions and more about the presence of a spirit that feels in complete control of its destiny. Barbaro certainly wore a bridle—the steering wheel that connected driver with athlete. But there was no bridle on Barbaro’s heart and spirit. Barbaro was doing what he wanted to do. And Prado knew that and felt no need to order or “lead” the horse to “run real hard.”
What is the Source of a Mustang-like Engagement?
We all know what performance unleashed looks like up close. It is a service experience delivered by someone who seems eager to create a sensational memory and able to operate as if “she or he owned the place.” It is the employee found asleep at her desk early in the morning because she “had to crack the code” and worked super late until she did. It is the associate strongly defending his firm even before hearing evidence of an improper action because, “I am sure we did the right thing; we always do.” Here are three ways to nurture a “mustang” spirit.
Promote a Compelling Purpose
In her book Fabled Service, Betsy Sanders tells the story of a homeless woman dressed in dirty apparel who entered the flagship Nordstrom store in downtown Seattle. No one questioned her motives as she made her way to the evening gown section of the store. Warmly greeted by the sales associate, she stated she wanted to try on an evening dress. Without hesitation, the sales associate helped her try on several expensive dresses, commenting on how well she looked in each. After a while, the homeless woman thanked the sales associate and made her way back to the street, a smile on her face; her head held high.
A customer who had witnessed the whole scene approached the sales associate and inquired about the motives behind her generous actions. “You knew from the start she was not going to buy an evening dress. So why did you take such time with this poor street person?” Confidently, the salesperson responded, “This is what we are here for: our purpose is to serve and be kind.”
We could do a cost benefit analysis of this tender moment and question her sales priorities. But Nordstorm knows the power of purpose in channeling commitment and spirit. A purpose communicates the “why.” And a compelling “why” drives actions even when no one is looking. It is the foundation of a belief system that pilots values that direct actions. Disney theme parks are places of magic down to the tiniest detail; Starbucks are coffee houses that warmly serve as local watering holes; and Lockheed Martin delivers innovative solutions to help their customers keep people safe. “A noble purpose,” wrote author Gary Hamel, “inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation, and encourages perseverance.”
Support Extreme Kindness
John Longstreet, now CEO of the Pennsylvania Hotel and Restaurant Association, was once the general manager of a large hotel in the Dallas, TX area that catered primarily to business guests. His philosophy on leadership was unique and refreshing. When I had taught corporate leadership classes at his hotel, I always asked John to talk with the participants on our second day of class. By the second day attendees had seen first-hand the impact of John’s leadership. A popular question was: “What do you view as your primary job?”
“My job,” John would tell them, “Is to treat my associates exactly like I want them to treat our guests. It is more than being nice to them, I want them to be carriers of kindness. You don’t train people to be kind; they already know how to do that. You create an environment that encourages kindness to be expressed. It is the housekeeper getting on her knees to talk eye level with the young child of a guest; it is wait staff in the restaurant who not only remembers details about a guest but shares them with other associates.” That is kindness on steroids.”
Keep Kindling Passion
I watched the movies Amadeus, Rocket Man, and Bohemian Rhapsody on a cross country flight and back. The common themes were three amazing talents—Mozart, Elton John, and Freddie Mercury of Queen—whose passions for music kept them productive at a high-performance level despite rejection, disappointment, and pain. They never lost their mustang spirit. Creating a passion-filled environment requires leaders willing to allow associates to “color outside the lines.”
Seth Godin in a TED talk once asked the audience to raise their right hand as high as they could. Once their hands were in the air, he requested they hold their hand up a little higher. When they complied, he queried them about why they did not reach for the sky on the first request. Great leaders, like Edgar Prado, create such supportive relationships associates are eager to give their best right out of the gate.
When I asked the late Herb Kelleher, founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, how he helped lead a company of passionate employees, he commented on his wish to have a diverse team, willing to take risks. “Associates watch how you treat those who are unique and different,” he told me. “It lets them know if you are really serious about ‘being courageous,’ one of our company’s core values.”
Kevin and Jackie Freiberg, in their best-selling book, Nuts: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, relate the story of the time Al Gore came to Southwest during his campaign for president. He sent a group of front people to Southwest who wanted to plant questions in the audience to ask after Gore’s speech. Colleen Barrett, then EVP of People for Southwest, quickly said, “No, our people would be so offended by that. I’m not worried about who the vice president calls on. Our people will be spontaneous, they will ask good, substantive questions; and they will be articulate.” The event was a smashing success.
Barbaro is the only horse in history to be buried on the grounds of Churchill Downs, the site of the 142-year-old Kentucky Derby. Steve Haskin, a blogger for bloodhorse.com wrote, ” …Barbaro experienced the ultimate in human kindness and compassion while being pampered like the noblest of kings. And he leaves behind a legacy that far transcends his stunning victory in the Kentucky Derby. Cervantes said, ‘The guts carry the feet, not the feet the guts.’ Barbaro’s guts carried his feet to victory after victory. But they carried his heart a lot farther.”