The Animal (Manager) Farm

So, you’re trying to hire a front-line or perhaps mid-tier manager.  Someone who is people savvy and also technically strong.  You have evaluated candidates on each of these criteria and you have a shortlist ready. Now you want to know what type they are so you know what to expect when they come on board.

Wiser people than I have tried to categorize them into a triumvirate or a quartet, sometimes adjacent or even overlapping with each other. All of these tend to be abstract, philosophical ideas. “Controlling”, one category reads. “Coaching” says another. The scholars then go on to explain what each type means and how to spot it.

I’m going to break it down into something simpler, concrete. Something one can see without ever setting a foot in the maze of leadership and management strategies. I’m going to also pick out the type I want in my cadre.

I see four categories of managers (not leaders….subtle difference there and subject of another discourse) –

1.       The Mustang – the very name evokes boundless energy, disregard for boundaries and the will to own all they survey.

2.       The Donkey – a strong work animal. It takes a lot of abuse and yet keeps working without complaint.

3.       The Hamster – it cuts a sorry figure – confined to its workwheel, a small cog in a bigger, unseen machine; toiling away and yet not getting anywhere. But it gets something done. It just doesn’t know what it is.

4.       The Mule – is…well, a mule.

When I ask people to identify themselves, most still see a Mustang in themselves. Some believe they’re a Hamster, a smaller fraction thinks they’re a Donkey. Very few choose a Mule.

Let’s see what it means to be a manager with traits of these animals.

A Mustang doesn’t need glorification after the introduction above. However, a mustang is undisciplined. It’s strong-headed and finds its own way, usually after breaking a fence or two and kicking some mares and foals in the head. It heads off in the direction its heart dictates….in that moment. I don’t think I want one of these in my rank and file. I have plenty of these in my “innovation” department. That’s where the sexy work is. But that work needs a more disciplined, more focused person to bring to fruition.

A Donkey takes direction and takes them well. There’s no pushback or raised eyebrows. You point a donkey in a given direction and off it goes, no matter how much load you put on its back. It’ll keep marching till you say “stop.” Not quite my choice for leading a group of people. If I wanted someone to reiterate my direction, I’d get a robot.

A Hamster is that lovable but clueless person you see every so often. It sees work and gets to it right away. It works tirelessly until it’s done. Then there’s a problem. What now? It’s confused and restless. In that fog of uncertainty, the hamster then starts chewing the carpet and gnawing at the furniture. I think I’ll pass on this fella. (A hamster is the kind of manager who’s at his/her happiest working the paper-mill – creating change tickets, writing up fault reports, calling meetings at the drop of a hat and sundry other red tape.)

So yeah, there’s only one left – the decidedly uncool, the Mule. Think about it. It’s a cross between a Donkey and a Mustang. It has the strength of a Donkey and the free will of a Mustang. It won’t bolt the barn to ride into the sunset on a whim. It won’t wait for your instructions to get your (work)load from point A to point B. It won’t get confused for lack of busy work. Give the Mule its load and point him where it needs to go. It will find a way to go there.

I like to imagine a situation where I need to get a bale of hay across the river.

The Mustang will probably resist the whole idea because, you know, it’s not cool. It wants to go graze in the pasture and chase after some mares. If you push, it’ll try to jump across the river and probably drown, cursing and thrashing at you.

The Hamster is obviously not equipped for this task. Even if the bale was a tiny little thing, it’ll look for its wheel, its comfort zone to somehow get across the river. Not going to happen.

The Donkey will shoulder the entire load, ask if there’s anymore and wait for your instructions. Once you tell it how to get across the river, it’ll splat right in. Heaven forbid if it finds a swift current. It’ll swim through or die trying. Quite possibly the latter.

The Mule will probably ask you questions about why it needs to be moved and where it need to go. It may even whine a bit. You might need to persuade it or even issue a direct order. Then it’ll set off but unlike it’s other (semi) equine brethren, it’ll be wise enough to not jump into a rushing river because you told it to. It would rather go a little upstream (or downstream) and find a safe spot to ford the water. It’ll find a better route than the one you provided and get the job done.

That’s the manager I want working for me. The uncool Mule.


Sometimes, denial is a wonderful stroke of luck

“Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck” – The Dalai Lama
Manoj Bajpayee can attest to that.
A farmer’s son, Bajpayee ached to be an actor since he was a little kid. As soon as he became eligible, he applied to National School of Drama and was promptly rejected. Three times. Fearing he wasn’t going to get what he wanted, he turned suicidal. Somehow, he pulled himself through and took some classical training in acting. His teacher was so impressed, he made Bajpayee a teaching assistant upon graduation.
So Bajpayee, confident that now he had what it takes, applied to NSD a fourth time. And he was rejected again!
However, examples of his phenomenal skills and talent were out there now. Impressed by that, NSD offered him a teaching position instead.
Bajpayee has gone on to becoming one of the great method actors in Bollywood by all accounts.
The next time you’re denied something, remember that you are in line for something bigger and better, if you’ll put in that extra something. And yes, classical/methodical training matters.

How to communicate in a crisis situation.

Philadelphia Air Traffic Controller: Southwest 1380, I understand your emergency, tell me when you want to go in.

Southwest 1380 Captain: Southwest 1380, uh, we have a piece of aircraft missing so we’re going to have to slow down a bit.

ATC: Southwest 1380, speed is your discretion, maintain any altitude above 3,000 feet and you let me know when you want to turn base.

ATC: … Is your airplane physically on fire?
1380: It’s not on fire but a piece is missing and someone went out.

ATC: Southwest 1380, it doesn’t matter, we’ll work it out there….You’re landing on 2-7 Left, 2-7 Left and Tower’s on 18.5 [frequency]
1380: 2-7 Left, Tower on 18.5. G’day.


Chilling exchange in unfortunate circumstances but amazing level-headedness, self-control and presence of mind on both the pilot and ATC’s part. And she even remembers her manners to say “G’day” at the end of their exchange!!!

That dude can direct my aircraft any day and that lady can drive my airplane every day of the week!

Effective communicating during a crisis takes forethought, laser-sharp focus and an ability to express facts and not much other than facts.

Two major components of actual communication are –

  1. This is what I need to do my job.
  2. What do you need to do *your* job?

The underlying presumption is to respect the other person’s judgement and never, ever talk over the other person, except when #2 prevents you from #1, in which case you go back to #1.

One is never more important than the other and both lead to the same outcome, successful delivery, which in this case was a metal tube filled with humans safely (except for one person) deposited on a strip of tarmac.

Heroes? I say they were. To them, it probably felt like another (difficult) day at the office. Something to remember when you think *your* job is hard!