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  • Where have all the Cowboys gone?

Where have all the Cowboys gone?

07 November 2021

Gerard Rahman, Partner |

I confess. I admire Paula Cole. Her 1997 song had a mischievous wit about it. In the music video, her eyes hide none of her meaning. Irony with a smile. This is not a song glorifying a stereotype. She is not looking for a cowboy to look after her. Why not listen to her song “Where have all the Cowboys gone?” Better still, let the video draw you in. Oh yes, this certainly had an impact on me, and indeed, it still does.

As a child of the 70s, I saw reruns of westerns on TV, practically every weekend. I completely bought into the idea that a single cowboy could ride into town and clean it up. You know, usually, it was just one man. Now let us take that idea of this lone hero and put him on the stage with all the hero-type leaders from business and politics from the 80s. It certainly reinforced the idea of the lone hero. Paula’s song grabbed both my shoulders and shook me to think differently.

Now, please, sit back and try this. Describe to yourself the characteristics of the lone cowboy. Yes, they usually know what they are doing, and they are very good at it. And, they usually have all the answers. The same can be said of some stereotypical business leaders. Because they have all the answers, we don’t need to think. We just need to do. In fact, being around the hero type leader gives insight into what it’s like to be an NPC in a video game. You know what I mean, the Non-Playable Characters in the digital background. This is not the environment where people can innovate and contribute, no more so than an NPC in that video game.   

Another characteristic of the lone cowboy is how quiet he is. Perhaps silent would be a better word. You know the one. He sits motionless, squinting purposely at the horizon. Motionless except for the cigarillo that rolls from side to side in his closed lips. Just like some business leaders as they gaze out of the window or into the depths of a laptop screen. You stand there clasping a notepad, not quite sure if he can see you. Perhaps now isn’t the time to ask about the recent wellbeing survey.

At the other extreme, we have the impatient lone cowboy. A brilliant wit. Has all the best lines. In the business world, they would usually start a conversation with “Everyone is entitled to my opinion…” You’ll notice it in business sometimes where there is a larger group gathering and the agenda is full of set pieces that inspire but ultimately the communication is one-way.

Perhaps it is just a narrow perspective but in the movies of the 50s and 60s, we hardly get to see cowboys take the time to sit down and have real conversations. But these same cowboys helped to shape how we perceive heroes. Naturally, of course, it evolved into how we perceive heroes in politics and business. And just like in the movies, lone heroes in politics and business promised so much. The focus was on the hero’s achievements. Be it getting government policy done or growing share value. Laudable as they are, these achievements will always be components within a much larger vista. Our view of these hero achievements may change over time. And here is the point. Usually, the legacy of heroes did not breed something sustainable – because the focus was on a single leader.

Sustainable cultures are built around the ability to have real conversations. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that leadership is not required within a team, but the team dynamic is a critical part of a sustainable culture. Individually, we all have a responsibility to contribute to a healthy team dynamic and be unbending to ensure that it is sustainable.      

I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t get caught up with the idea of a lone hero. I did. I’ll put my hand up. I did recommend the autobiographies of these lone heroes in business and politics. In fact, Paula Cole’s song title is my subtle reference to one of them. It just goes to show how fickle I am. But I remain grateful to Paula for constantly reminding me to think differently. We do not have to follow the stereotype. Hope you can get that song out of your head. Or maybe not…