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  • Writer's pictureCaleb Gipple

Leadership: The Show Horse and the Plow Horse

I love leadership.

I love reading and learning about leadership but more than anything I love discussing leadership. I enjoying chatting with individuals and engaging in thought provoking discussion utilizing material I’ve read about leadership. 

This leads to phone calls like one I was on the other day. The call was with an older gentleman who was comparing his leadership style to one of his coworkers. It warmed my heart hearing the pride in his voice as he described their servant leadership. Then he said something that absolutely broke my heart. 

“I’m not necessarily a leader like them. I am more of just a doer and I’ve only moved up the rungs because of my work ethic and not my leadership.” 

Oof, that quote hits you right in the gut, doesn’t it? An individual in a leadership position that doesn’t view themselves as a leader. Sadly, this is a problem I have seen numerous times with my peers at my University or young professionals in the workforce. So just why do these individuals think they are not true leaders? 

It’s because they’re looking at it all wrong. I recently re-read the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, which discusses the concept of plow horse and show horse leaders. This is an extremely influential train of thought, however, I feel it is not highlighted by our society enough. We’ve heard countless times that everyone is a leader which is very true, and we know individuals have different styles of leadership. That being said, the one key factor to all this that we overlook is how we perceive our own leadership.

We either perceive our leadership as a plow horse or a show horse. To be clear, when I say show horse leadership I am not describing an arrogant leader patting themselves on the back for a moment of leadership. Instead, I am describing moments and events of leadership that we have the capacity to personally acknowledge as good leadership. Examples of this would be a situation where you help someone on your team overcome an obstacle or you go out of your way to care for those under your leadership. There is nothing wrong with show horse leadership, in fact, I think it is extremely beneficial to identify when you are doing good leadership so you can make that behavior a trend.

Plow horse leadership on the other hand is a very interesting concept. I would hands down describe the individual I was on the phone with as a plow horse leader. To provide context on the individual in this example I have heard countless people that have interacted with him throughout the community that would describe him as not just a leader but also a leader they look up to. 

So, what is causing the leadership disconnect here?

I believe it is his style of leadership as a plow horse. To explain, these individuals don’t view him as a leader because he is leading a big initiative or he has a position of authority. They view him this way because of how he makes them feel. I had heard countless individuals explain how he approaches meeting and interactions and it aligns perfectly with Simon Sinek’s idea of a “circle of safety” in his book Leaders Eat Last. The reason this is plow horse leadership is because it is small gestures they do that goes unnoticed by the individual doing it. The beauty is that if you identify this as leadership they often will respond, “that’s just how I do things. So instead of identifying their behavior as leadership they view it as trucking along doing their everyday thing. This sense of humility is awesome but can also be troublesome. This is why it is so crucial that we acknowledge individuals doing leadership because while plow horse leadership is fine, when left unnoticed for to long the individual can get burnt out and lose their impact as a leader in their organization. 

My call to action is a simple one that in many ways is similar to Drew Dudley’s TED Talk, Leading with Lollipops. (If you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing now and watch it.) We need to change how we perceive everyday leadership. Not every instance of leadership is going to be a showcase example exhibited by show horse leaders. Often times the most crucial of leadership is plow horse leadership such as everyday interactions with team members or seemingly grunt work. These instances that are seemingly meaningless cannot be overlooked because if we know one thing for sure it’s that it’s not always the showy flashy aspects of leadership that impacts individuals significantly. Instead,  it’s the plow horse examples such as genuinely caring for our team members and peers that truly changes lives.

So, as you go through your day I challenge you to stop and reflect when you aren’t feeling like a leader and ask yourself, what horse am I today?

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