DURING MY TERM as a university president, I always felt that presiding over the faculty was like herding cats. And my saying about faculty members is that “if you meet one, you meet one.”
But such individualism is part of what makes leading a group of knowledge workers so exciting, and so challenging.
Increasingly, in the United States and throughout the world, leaders must respect individual rights, tastes, opinions, and idiosyncrasies. Whether their organizations are funded by taxes or tithing, endowments or product sales, wise leaders know that the proverbial “widow’s mite” is what makes their exalted positions possible. Each widow, therefore, commands respect.
Anymore, managing any people is like herding cats. Cats, of course, won’t allow themselves to be herded. They may, however, be coaxed, cajoled, persuaded, adored, and gently led. With cats, keep in mind, the dictum is milk before meat. Any leader who dares to think of himself or herself as the “cat’s meow” will likely be hissed and clawed. The recipe calls for more catnip, less catnap.
In his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot writes of The Rum Tum Tugger, “For he will do as he will do, and there’s no doing anything about it. When you let him in, then he wants to be out; he’s always on the wrong side of every door.”
Gone are the days when leaders and managers – even dictators and despots – could afford to think of people in terms of gangs and groups, databases and demographics, masses and markets, cultures and castes.
When I started my studies of leadership about 15 years ago, I consulted with a lot of people, including an old friend, who still teaches at the Harvard Business School. I told him I wanted to go out and spend the next 10 or 20 years seeing if I could identify the basic characteristics of exemplary, outstanding, excellent leaders to see what they were made up of, what their character was like.
My friend sort of scoffed at me and said, “Look, the only thing we can ever say about leadership is that it’s like pornography. You can’t describe it; you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.” He said, “I think it’s arrogant of you to think you’re going to go out and do that.” When he used the word “arrogant” to describe me, I reminded him of the Harvard University professor’s prayer “Dear Lord, please deliver us from the terrible sin of intellectual arrogance, which for your information means . . .”
So, to you who aspire to lead people, I again say: Be humble. Stop trying to “herd cats” and start building trust and mutual respect. Your “cats” will respond. They will sense your purpose, keep your business purring, and even kill your rats.

– Warren Bennis

Excerpted from Managing People Is Like Herding Cats (Executive Excellence Publishing,1999), preface.

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