What herding cattle taught me about business


It wouldn’t be fair to say that I learned everything I know about business from walking behind a herd of beef cattle. But the experience taught me lessons I still use.

My father and uncle operated a mixed grain-livestock farm when I was growing up. They had a herd of approximately 100 Hereford cows, most of which produced a calf in late winter. In early spring, we would drive the cattle seven miles over country roads to a Community Pasture operated by the federal government. The cattle would be boarded at the pasture during the grain-growing season and led back home after harvest.

Twice a year I got to follow the herd, on foot, over gravel and dirt roads, across a highway, through ditches and sometimes across fields. It was a great adventure. Looking back, it was also a useful training experience for business, politics and volunteer activities.

Here’s what I learned:

  • The herd has a leader. We didn’t lead the cattle—we followed. One of the older cows, which had made the journey several times, headed down the road and the others fell in line. Occasionally, the leader set a pace that was too fast for the calves. At other times, we had to stop the leader from taking a shortcut through a neighbor’s field. On the whole, though, it was a member of the herd that brought the others along. In any group of colleagues—paid or volunteer—I’ve found that there’s always at least one natural leader who instinctively knows where the group should be heading. Working with the natural leaders makes the journey a lot smoother for all concerned.
  • Good relations with neighbors eliminate many problems. Our cattle walked alongside fields belonging to several landowners. Naturally, they were drawn to water or fresh grazing, regardless of who owned the land. My father and uncle were known to be generous with their help, so the landowners did not complain about the odd bit of trampling. In the work world, we experience equipment breakdowns, weather emergencies, illnesses and dozens of other challenges. Working well with neighbors, competitors and suppliers will save us when we least expect that we will need help.
  • Approaching a problem obliquely is usually better than head-on. When a calf or young steer strayed from the herd, it was my job to bring the animal back. It didn’t take long to learn that going straight after the stray would frighten the calf and trigger a long run over rough ground. Approaching obliquely would allow me to gently guide the calf back to the herd.

    Sketch: approaching a stray from an oblique angle
    In the working world, the head-on approach may pay off with certain people or in a limited number of situations. Always, it leaves a festering memory and erodes trust. Better to set boundaries and let the “stray” find the way back.

  • Scale matters, until it doesn’t. When the herd arrived at the Community Pasture, the professional cowboys took over. Large holding pens rapidly filled with herds coming from the neighboring farms. The calves were led through a set of chutes to be examined, vaccinated, branded and castrated. The cows were sent through another set of chutes to be examined, vaccinated and tagged. Our herd would have been processed in less than an hour. At home, all those tasks might have taken a couple of days. On the other hand, when the cows needed individual attention during the calving season, my father’s personal touch was irreplaceable. So it is in all things. Matching the method to the need is an underestimated talent.
  • Experience counts. I was on my school’s track team during the last years I tended the herd, so my endurance was better. I could walk or run for long periods without tiring. But physical conditioning wasn’t the major source of improvement in my work. Having traveled that road several times before, I had come to know what to expect. I could anticipate when a calf would stray, pick the right angle to approach it and get it back to the herd with minimal effort. I could position myself ahead of time to direct the lead cow away from the shortcuts. Whether in business, politics or voluntary work, raw skills are helpful but not sufficient. Experience builds the confidence to take on the large tasks and breeds the anticipation that heads off errors and false starts.

Walking behind a herd of cattle is about as far away from my current work as I could have imaged on those spring and fall mornings. For one thing, my shoes are cleaner now. The mud and weeds, the persistent bellowing, the occasional cloud of mosquitoes—all these surface details set the herding apart from office work. But beneath it all, the underlying shape of the two experiences has surprising and instructive similarities.

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