Ten Thousand Horses: How Leaders Harness Raw Potential for Extraordinary Results

Ten Thousand Horses: How Leaders Harness Raw Potential for Extraordinary Results

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by John Stahl-Wert, Ken Jennings

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In this inspiring leadership fable, Stahl-Wert and Jennings draw on their years of experience as consultants and chief executives, as well as on findings from Gallup's ground-breaking Q-12 survey, to lay out an leadership model that will turn employees from dutiful drones to committed contributors. "Ten Thousand Horses" is the story of Matt James, a top-performing

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In this inspiring leadership fable, Stahl-Wert and Jennings draw on their years of experience as consultants and chief executives, as well as on findings from Gallup's ground-breaking Q-12 survey, to lay out an leadership model that will turn employees from dutiful drones to committed contributors. "Ten Thousand Horses" is the story of Matt James, a top-performing sa lesman who is promoted to head his division, an entirely different job than the one he was good at. His workers don't respond to his efforts to lead them, and soon he's on the brink of being fired. In desperation, he reaches out to his old, unorthodox mentor, David Butler, who now works with wiild mustang horses. More than simply a leadership fable, "Ten Thousand Horses" is a story of personal transformation. Beyond specific practices and techniques, Matt must learn a whole new way of relating to his employees, because, as he discovers, leading an engaged workforce is as much about who you are as what you do.

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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
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5.82(w) x 8.74(h) x 0.64(d)

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Ten Thousand Horses


Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 John Stahl-Wert and Ken Jennings
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-528-0

Chapter One

End of the Rope

Matt James was slumped forward onto the executive conference table, his forehead pressed against the gleaming rich mahogany finish, his arms outstretched before him as though in prayer. He was alone, his mute supplication aimed at no one. His boss and the company's executive team had departed the meeting half an hour before, leaving him to ponder their ultimatum and to stare down into the depths of his ruin. They'd given him one more chance to try to light a fire under his lackluster team, and at the very end they offered him words of hope and encouragement. They were sticking with him, they had said, because they believed in him. They just knew he could turn his twenty-two-member team around, tap into "all that incredible talent" that was going to waste, and get some real results!

But Matt knew that he couldn't. He had already tried everything he could think of and had nothing to show but two years of divisional losses in advertising clients and profits. The executive team had said they believed in him, but their faces told him something else. The team's collective show of faith hadn't come easily; their smiles and affirming nods had required an obvious exercise of unwilling muscle. It wasn't that he blamed them. The truth was, he didn't believe in himself anymore.

Matt closed his eyes, letting his forehead rest more heavily on the table's surface. He'd orchestrated two downsizings in his brief, unimpressive tenure as the company's newest "rising star." He'd brought in expert consultants and spearheaded a major strategy change—but to no effect. His division at Lumina Communications Corporation was sluggish at best. The great potential he thought he saw in his staff had not made any public appearances. It was as though they didn't care; their minimally "satisfactory" performance was no better than could be expected from a gang of clock punchers, and often it was worse.

Most troubling of all was that people in the division he'd inherited had treated him well in the beginning. They'd seemed excited about his appointment as team leader and, truth be told, had given him the benefit of the doubt—for a while. But then their energy had waned. One by one, members of his team began to back off. Where at first they brought their whole selves to the job, now many of them seemed to bring nothing more than scraps and leftovers.

Matt's job was now on the line. Though "a final chance" had just been offered, he knew it was just the extra rope required to finish him off. There was no doubt about it, Matt concluded. He was finished.

* * *

Seventeen hundred miles away, David Butler was absorbed in a timeless dusty dance, his cowboy boots moving with a languorous rhythm in a circle around his new partner, a highly agitated mustang stallion. David's posture and bearing were relaxed, the mustang's wary and tense. David would take a few slow steps forward along the horse's left flank, always leaving the mustang's forward path open, quietly speaking to him all the while. Whenever the horse's head and neck would crane high, ears erect, David would pause and wait for the panic to subside. If the mustang took a step or two forward, testing the openness of its path to freedom, David would move in nearly the same direction as the horse, his back turned slightly toward it, and take a few steps as though to offer leadership. "I'm not here to trap you, boy," David would say quietly. "See? I'm just moving a little ahead of you. Stay on your own course if you like, or follow mine; the choice is yours."

David and the mustang were inside a rough wooden corral surrounded by miles of high-elevation, open grassland. The snow-covered peaks of Rampart Range rose up to frame the western backdrop to this rugged scene. An intensely blue sky laden with massively brilliant clouds caused man and horse to seem small and vulnerable, too perilously exposed to nature's raw wild beauty.

"That's a good boy," David said quietly, encouragingly, when on his next lead the mustang altered his course to take a few small steps after him. "That's a good boy," he repeated. "It's a beginning!"

* * *

In an instant, Matt James jerked up out of his seat, his body reanimating so quickly that the motion might have been caused by the yank of a puppeteer's strings. Standing erect, his shoulders squared, Matt stared out over a great distance, a new hint of possibility flickering in his gaze.

Unbidden, the face of his old mentor had appeared in his mind's eye, staring back up at him from the depths of his despair. It's not the end, Matt, he heard David say, the customary edge of good humor goading him to lighten up. Not the end at all, my boy; it's a beginning.

That's exactly what David would say, Matt mused, his conviction growing that he'd had an extremely good idea. His former mentor, David Butler, the now-retired celebrated corporate turnaround specialist would say just that. Put him into the room with almost any despairing board or executive, tell him the plain truth of just how bad things were, and David would shrug; smile his unperturbed, seen-it-before smile; and call it a starting point, a place to begin.

Striding out of the conference room with renewed energy, Matt punched the button for the forty-third floor and rode the elevator down three levels to his divisional offices. It had been a late-afternoon executive-team meeting, but he felt certain Deb would still be at her desk, veteran that she was. You didn't keep the privilege of serving a midtown Manhattan advertising executive, even a midlevel one, by abandoning your desk before six. More than that, though, Deb's tenure exceeded his own at Lumina; she was one of the few left whose commitment hadn't wavered, and he was happy he could still count on her.

"Glad you're here, Deb," Matt called out as he rounded the corner to her section, his lanky stride unbroken. "David Butler's an old mentor from business school. He's deep in my contacts file somewhere, but it's been a very long time and I haven't a clue where he's disappeared to." Matt passed Deb's desk, smiling his appreciation for her capacity to fulfill the task. "Would you find him for me?" he asked, passing into his own office and closing the door.

Deb found him, or rather, she found his ranch. The young-sounding woman who answered the phone, Sara Jarrel, told her that Mr. Butler could not be disturbed—this in spite of the air of significance Deb had put into her appeal. "A business colleague of Mr. Butler's," Deb had explained to the whelp. "Mr. Matt James calling from New York City."

She may as well have tried to impress this cowpuncher with her skill at hailing cabs. "David said no calls, ma'am," Sara replied, her voice conveying a questioning tone that was aimed at Deb: Are you getting this, Miss Tightly-Wound-Lady-from-New-York? Do you realize just how not an emergency this is?

"We've just got in a new mustang," Sara then added, deciding to give a small additional explanation. "He's a real wild one, and they just got started. Could David call your man after dinner?" she then inquired, patiently taking down the number. "It'll be Colorado time," Sara added at the end, not certain her New York phone counterpart understood all that much about the way the real world worked.

Deb terminated the call as politely and quickly as she could to stop herself from saying something she would regret.

"And Matt, try not to forget that Mr. Butler will be calling you 'Colorado time,'" Deb had repeated very earnestly at the end of her report of the conversation, her fingers scratching quotation marks in the air, her mouth turned in the barest hint of a smile. With nothing more to report, she turned to finish her work for the day back at her desk. "Her man" would just have to handle things from here.

"Good night, Deb," Matt called after her, grinning at her recitation and at the amazing news of his old mentor. A ranch? Colorado? Wild mustangs?

That night David called Matt. They talked a long time, renewing a friendship that had meant much to Matt when he was in business school and David was an adjunct faculty member. David had taken a special interest in Matt during those earlier years, and as the younger man described in detail the problem he was facing, David quickly focused his attention.

"David, I'm up against it," Matt concluded. "I've tried everything I know, but it's not working. My tenure as a salesman was tremendously successful when it was just me on the line. Ever since my promotion, it's like a totally different game. I'm leading a team of people," he added for clarification. "The talent that's on my team looks great on paper, but our results don't show it. Potential is all I've got, truth be told. Raw potential," he qualified.

"Could you come here and help me?" he concluded, his voice a plea.

After a long silence, David finally replied, "Matt, I care about what's going on; I care about you. But I can't come to New York."

"We'll make it easy for you," Matt countered. "We'll fly you back and forth to New York; you set the schedule."

"Ease is not the issue. Here's where my work is. What we accomplish here, working with ..." David paused, searching for words.

"Wild horses," Matt interjected, completing his former mentor's sentence. He knew what David did.

"Sure. Wild horses are a part of it," David agreed. "But what we really work with is what you just told me you work with: raw potential. What we accomplish here doesn't take place in theory. I can't do this work in principle. It happens in real time, in person. I need to be here."

Matt's slump was back. Horses! His mentor had lined up his priorities and given him a lovely position—just to the backside of a horse.

Another silence ensued. "Tell you what," David said. "Why don't you come here? On the ranch I've got the time you need. Bring your story and your questions, and I'll do the best I can for you. Then go back to New York and apply what we've discussed. If you want, come back for more. Let's see if we can get you some real results!"

It was agreed. Matt would draw up a consultant's contract, though David warned him that it was going to be an unusual engagement. Matt would learn "hands-on," as David put it, at the ranch. He'd learn by working beside David, not by sitting in a room with flip charts.

"David?" Matt asked, just before they'd hung up the phones. "What does 'hands-on' mean?" He tried to make the question sound jaunty, but the nervousness in his voice betrayed him.

David chuckled. "Just depends," he answered cryptically. "You know the expression 'hang on to your hat'? Hands are real good for that, Matt, just to give you one case in point. They're also good for holding the reins, but maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Just bring your hands," David concluded. "There's a lot to touch here and a lot to love; you'll see."

The Climb of Trust

The newness of everything around him—and the strangeness of it all—made it seem to Matt that the volume button had been turned up on all his senses. Only one week had passed since he'd hung up the phone with David, one short week and then a few hours of flight. But the life he'd led seemed so distant now, the world he left a gray and shadowy place.

Matt's flight that morning to Colorado Springs had been smooth, and halfway across the small parking lot from the airport to his rental car, he had stopped, propped his wheeled suitcase against a post, and looked around. The closeness of the sky amazed him, as did its blueness and its size. He took a breath, a big breath, and then another.

He'd driven slowly, a tourist to this new world, a child on his first outing. Driving northwest out of Colorado Springs, Matt wound his way in and around the colossal burnt umber rock outcroppings of the Garden of the Gods and climbed ever higher, Pike's Peak rising to nearly three miles' elevation to the west. And then he'd found the entrance sign for "High Summit Ranch," a smaller placard reading "Wild Mustang Adoption Program." After driving up the ranch's long and winding lane, he'd been greeted with a father's embrace by David. He'd been immediately ushered into a spacious dining hall for a late private lunch and then out to the ranch's horse stables. His transfiguration from suited executive to denim-clad ranch guest had happened so quickly, and what he now stood face-to-face with threatened to overwhelm his senses altogether.

"Her name's Jessie," David was saying, cinching the girth, evidently unwavering in his expectation that Matt would momentarily mount the great steed he had just thrown a saddle on. "She's a horse," David added playfully, glancing up at Matt to read his expression.

Matt took no notice of David's look. Standing directly in front of him was a mottled red beast of such size that Matt had to look up to meet its appraising gaze.

"Ever seen a horse?" David continued.

"Course I've seen a horse," Matt gulped, realizing that his mouth had been hanging open. Slowly, he put out his hand and moved it toward the soft nose of the muscular animal that stood before him. At first touch, Jessie nickered, pressing her nose acceptingly into Matt's hand.

"It's just that I've never been this close to one," he added, remembering to breathe.

David smiled. "Jessie's one of the most gentle and forgiving horses on the ranch. And she's already added you to her list of friends. So, let's take a ride, shall we? I want to introduce you to a few people this afternoon."

There apparently being no discussion on this suggestion permitted, Matt put his foot where David pointed (a "stirrup," Matt noted, checking the little box in his brain under "stuff to learn"), grabbed fast to the hold David showed him ("pommel," check!), and hoisted himself awkwardly into the saddle. He'd heard of saddles.

Following David's brief instructions, and mimicking the actions of his mentor as best he could, Matt caused Jessie to lurch into motion behind the lead horse. He was glad David wasn't watching those first fifty yards. The "steering" on this horse seemed terribly loose to Matt; it reminded him of driving a bumper car, each effort at guidance responded to in a time-delayed and imprecise fashion.

Matt and David headed for the jagged granite cliffs rising dramatically out of the Colorado high-country terrain only a mile west of the ranch house. Along the way, David started talking.

"In my earlier business years, I was seen as very effective," David said, offering Matt nothing that he didn't already know. David's reputation for success was why Matt had sought him out, why Matt had admired him years earlier in business school, and why, indeed, the MBA program had retained David back then as an adjunct faculty member.

"I knew how to cut costs and trim head count with the best of them, and I always showed quick results on the bottom line."

Matt was listening, but the greater part of his attention was focused on staying atop his horse. The ground they were covering had turned from a smooth, even trail into an uneven, rocky path.

"At some point I began to notice, though," David continued, "as I looked in the rearview mirror, that my so-called turnarounds hadn't held up. Not long after I'd left one assignment for the next, my results started to sour, and the gains I had achieved began to unravel. It happened every time, Matt! The business press made me famous because their attention span was too short. In truth, my so-called results were largely smoke and mirrors."

Matt's attention shifted back to David. The pathway their horses were following was steadily worsening, but now it was David's remarks that posed the greater threat to Matt. Jessie came to a sudden standstill, Matt unaware of having done anything to cause her halt.

David brought his own horse to a stop and turned to check on his friend. Matt could not wipe the apprehension off his face as he looked at the man who was supposed to be his answer.

"Not only were my so-called turnarounds short-lived, Matt," David continued mercilessly, shifting his weight in the saddle to fully face the younger man, "but they hurt a lot of people." David had not missed the reason Matt brought his horse unwittingly to a standstill. He had intended, in fact, to start this "consultation" on just this point and knew it would violate his client's expectations.


Excerpted from Ten Thousand Horses by JOHN STAHL-WERT KEN JENNINGS Copyright © 2007 by John Stahl-Wert and Ken Jennings. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Ten Thousand Horses: How Leaders Harness Raw Potential for Extraordinary Results 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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I received this book as a gift. It was a very 'easy read' and offered more than just words to the reader - it offered a message. The story is captivating, the purpose is sincere, and best of all tastefully written. What a delight, a wonderful resource, and a unique method of revealing facts that are truly needed for leadership. I will implement this into my life at home and at work.