4 Leadership Skills for Herding Cats

© 2013 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

We now live in a Society of Individuals. Individuals decide where they want to go, what they want to do and whose ideas they want to follow – just like the independent chaos of cats. It’s just that most people haven’t realized this yet – especially people who fancy themselves as leaders. In a Society of Individuals, you can’t just tell people what to do. You can’t do all the planning and details on your own, then expect to dictate your ideas to others. In our current society, leaders need to pay attention to at least 4 key issues. Of course, I am writing this not as a leader, but as an observer of leaders, their personalities and the trouble they often inadvertently create for themselves. So you can feel free to ignore what I have to say – and go in any direction you wish!

1. Developing Personal Relationships

At our High Conflict Institute seminars, we have a saying: “The Issue’s not the Issue!” Personalities and relationships are the issue. People generally don’t follow ideas on their own, although they may think that they do. They tend to follow people with ideas. If they like the person, then they like their ideas. If they really like the person, they may really like their ideas, even when lots of evidence suggests that they shouldn’t.

The most effective leaders give people a relationship to hold onto. Franklin Roosevelt had his fireside chats on the radio. Ronald Reagan made people “feel good” about themselves. Bill Clinton said “I feel your pain,” and people felt this was true. Al Gore became the symbol of the new environmental movement, after his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” came out several years ago. He made it personal – we all need to do something green!

The problems these leaders addressed were already there, but they made a connection with people that focused their attention and energy. These leaders emphasized the human element as much or more than their ideas. Once their relationships were established, people listened to their ideas.

Some of the most effective business leaders emphasize relationships. For example, compare two airline executives in the economic turmoil of the 1980s, and their long-lasting results:

In 1985, Gerald Grinstein became CEO of Western Airlines, which was in serious financial trouble. In an effort to reduce expenses, he got to know his employees by spending time with them in the planes, at the counters, and in the areas where they moved the baggage. In this manner he paid a lot of attention to his employees, he respected their work, and appeared to feel a lot of empathy for them. Eventually, they agreed to cut backs in pay and tougher work rules, in exchange for a bigger interest in a successful company. After only two years, Grinstein was able to sell the company for $860 million to Delta Airlines.

He was highly regarded as being tough and empathetic.

In contrast, there is the story of Ronald Allen, who became CEO of Delta Airlines in 1987. In 1991, he bought Pan American World Airways, which quickly plunged the company into a tailspin because of its huge debt at a time that profits were already diminishing for airlines in general. Allen took a get-tough approach. He criticized managers in front of their employees. He humiliated and eliminated those who opposed him. By 1996, half of the employees were hostile to him as a leader. His response was to say: “So be it,” which alienated them further. Ironically, his cuts made the company profitable again, but he was fired by the board as primarily responsible for causing serious damage to the company’s reputation and workforce morale.

2. Teaching and teaching and teaching

Of course, connecting with people has always been a characteristic of effective leaders. What has changed significantly in the past few decades is that people want to be directly involved in the decision-making process of groups and organizations. No longer can Presidents, or CEOs, or managers just dictate how it’s going to be. People want to know why it should be this way, so that they can decide whether they will join in the cause or whatever it is. People are acting more like independent cats, except that they are looking for a cause and a tribe.

With unlimited access to information in this age of Google and Twitter, people like learning about issues, researching issues and finding out what is going on. People are also more skeptical or outright mistrustful of leaders. They can no longer say “Because I decided” or “I have information you don’t have” or “Trust me on this.” Frankly, people today don’t trust leaders who say Trust Me too much.

People enjoy being educated about issues. They are very interested in new ideas – innovations, discoveries, and secrets revealed. But they also like those who appear to talk to them respectfully – who treat them as capable of understanding and making their own decisions about the information provided. This may be why many people viewed Bill Clinton as significantly helping Barack Obama right before the last Presidential election. Clinton took a strongly educational approach at the Democratic convention, and was considered the most effective speaker at the whole event.

This may also be why the recent head of J. C. Penney, Ron Johnson, formerly an Apple executive, failed so spectacularly and was fired this spring. He was overconfident that his ideas were right without discussing them sufficiently with his constituents – his managers, employees, and customers, without sufficiently explaining why he was doing his new approach and allowing them to give their feedback. He tried to take the company in an entirely new direction, without staying connected to the people and the ideas that the company was built upon. Ideas do matter – especially the full discussion of these ideas.

If you can’t explain and defend your approach, then it may not be such a good idea and it might not succeed – especially if few people are on-board. In the past, leaders could do all their thinking behind closed doors and announce their plans. In today’s world, it seems that many organizations and leaders fail if they don’t have this educational dialog to inspire support and to avoid major errors.

3. Building a Team Against the Problem

Once a leader has explained his or her vision, there is a need to hear from people and allow them to play a role in refining and implementing the goals the leader has described. In today’s world, people don’t want to just be foot soldiers. They want to be significant in developing details. This is especially true with each younger generation of employees. They are used to doing things themselves, communicating themselves and deciding what they are going to do next. Leaders can’t just expect passive acceptance.

Likewise, today’s citizens and group members want to be excited about what they are doing. They like feeling a sense of purpose – that what they are doing is important and that they are important. While this may feel like herding cats, it actually can work very well when a work group or other “team” share this approach. For leaders who just want to decide for themselves, it will be like herding cats in today’s Society of Individuals. But for leaders who understand and enjoy the dialog of collaboration, it can be an energizing experience and generate an incredible amount of energy. This was apparent during Barack Obama’s first campaign for President, when he inspired thousands of young individuals and they had many opportunities to personally shape the campaign in their local communities and through social media.

Unfortunately, Obama’s leadership style once he was elected looked a lot more like traditional leaders who prefer to work behind the scenes rather than engage the electorate. I believe that many of his frustrations as a leader may be traced to this administrative style, rather than to any specific idea.

4. Respecting Resistance

The last leadership skill for herding cats – or leading in a Society of Individuals – appears to be getting comfortable dealing with the resistance that naturally occurs in response to any new idea or “change.” Expect that people will push back, often in an effort to be respected and important in the process. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they will reject the leader or even the leader’s ideas. They just want to make themselves known. By respecting and dialoging with this resistance, a leader builds credibility with his or her skeptics – as well as gaining the confidence of his or her supporters as someone who’s not thrown off balance, but can deal with any problem that arises on the way to accomplishing the leader’s goals. By appearing unflappable, a leader gains strength in the eyes of bystanders. Part of this is revising one’s methods along the way, and part of this is “staying the course” despite criticism and skepticism. Most people will give a leader a chance if they feel respected for their own views.

A big part of President Obama’s frustrations in his second term appears to be that he has given up on his opposition and appears to have retreated into his administration. It is widely reported that he doesn’t actually like politics and would rather just be an administrator. Unfortunately, this is the old style of leadership which is no longer available to leaders of large organizations. When people feel respected by and important to you, they are much more likely to support your ideas – or at least give you a chance to see if your new ideas and methods work.

This doesn’t mean that a leader has to sacrifice his or her goals when others disagree. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. If you are comfortable with those who disagree with you, you will gain credibility and energy from the larger group. Accept the fact that there will always be those who will intensely disagree – some of whom may simply be high conflict people – and that the majority of people want their leaders to succeed. But they want their leaders to look confident and strong, regardless.


From my observations in today’s Society of Individuals, leaders need to learn a new set of skills, if they do not naturally have them. By learning and practicing the above four skills, I believe that managers, CEOs and politicians can truly lead large groups of people in successful endeavors – even in an age of individualism. What is needed is a much more participatory process, which requires much more personal engagement and resilience for leaders than in the past. It is a fundamentally collaborative process and it requires skills for mediating differences among those you can treat as equals. It doesn’t have to be hard. You just have to learn these skills – and to support leaders who have them. After all, even cats seem to follow those who feed them and pet them enough.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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