The Profound Lesson Cows Can Teach Us About Leading People

Brown CowAfter working out this morning at my gym, I walked into the locker room and overheard one of my friends, Joe, tell another exerciser that he’d grown up on a dairy farm.

Instinctively recalling a New York Times article that reported, “Cows, when given names, produce six percent more milk,” I inserted myself into the conversation and asked Joe if he’d been inclined to name all his cows.

“Yes, I was!” said the seventy-five-year-old urologist.  “As a kid, I had a name for all the animals on the farm, and I tried to make friends with each and every one of them.”

“But my dad had a different opinion on that,” Joe said in an immediate change of tone.  “He attempted at a very early age to teach me to avoid making emotional connections like that with our animals.  One night, he took my pet rabbit, Freddy, and insisted my mother cook it for dinner.  Sitting at the dinner table, I had tears coming down my face as my father insisted how delicious Freddy tasted.”

This brief interchange was startling to me, of course, and it ended as quickly as Joe packed his gear and headed home.  But there was no question in my mind that Joe’s sudden recollection was nearly as painful today as it had been sixty years ago when the experience originally occurred.

While this story is indeed horrifying – and who today wouldn’t judge Joe’s dad as having been an extremely cruel and careless parent? – the lesson he very purposely sought to instill in his young son is much the same as we’ve all long been taught:  Keep your heart out of business.

Consider this compelling fact.  When researchers recently presented proof to a large group of dairy farmers that they could significantly improve milk production simply by naming their cows, the majority of farmers took a pass.

Here’s why.  As I wrote originally in Lead From The Heart, were any of us to have a small farm, it would be unthinkable to not give all our animals thoughtful and even affectionate names.  “But something unnatural occurs when we expand our farms and make them into a business enterprise.  We ignore what we instinctively know, and rationalize with ourselves that caring for our animals is no longer necessary or practical.  The operation changes to a business driven by efficiency and we allow ourselves to lose complete sight of what’s important or right.”

We know today that more people are unhappy in their jobs than ever before.  71% of US workers admit to not being engaged at work – or to being actively dis-engaged.   The reason for all this discontent, not surprisingly, has a direct and irrefutable parallel to cows:  Leaders aren’t demonstrating in any meaningful, consistent or authentic way that they care, and employees can feel it.  Tied to this, employee engagement and productivity have been severely diminished.

While it’s most certainly implied by research that all forms of nurturing positively affect the hearts in cows, it’s undeniable that how people (human beings) are made to feel in the workplace has everything to do with their initiative, commitment, loyalty and production.

This is information we need to let sink in.

While we’ve long believed that keeping relationships with employees “business-like” and inherently impersonal would drive greater performance and results, the lack of connection between employee and employer, worker and boss, is having the unintended consequence of killing spirits.  The very reason people have become so miserable in their jobs is because they’re not being made to feel valued – or that their work really matters.

It’s time for a change of heart in leadership.  It’s more than clear that the management philosophy and beliefs best represented by Joe’s dad have failed to sustainably motivate and inspire human workers.   Leaders who will succeed in the 21st Century, therefore, will be the ones who fully embrace the fundamental reality that employees are first and foremost human beings who thrive on things like kindness, thoughtfulness, appreciation and personal development.

The idea of leading with any degree of heart, I’m certain, will continue to raise cynicism amongst many in business.  Yet, if a cow, when given a considerate name like Buttercup, will reward you with six percent more milk, how much more potential do you think employees have inside of them in the presence of some genuine care?

As someone who has broad senior manager level leadership experience in large financial services organizations, and who’s successfully managed investment brokers, lending officers and retail bankers, I know for certain that what employees the world over want more than anything is to work for a boss and an organization that genuinely care about them and their well being.

It’s no surprise that at least a third of all people working today would prefer a new boss over a significant pay raise.  Clearly, there’s no amount of money that can make up for the time spent working for someone who disregards our highest human needs.

Studs Terkel spoke on behalf of workers everywhere when he said, “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.