January 18, 2015
Last October I picked up a number of weaned steers. They came from an Angus herd, raised on grass, and certified natural. Just the animals I look for to bring to the farm.
I trailered them to the farm and unloaded into the holding corral where they would stay for the next two weeks. Giving them a chance to settle down and get use to the new landscape and people (and giving us a chance to see if the new animals are sick before turning them out with the herd). I kept my distance from the corral, other than to feed, figuring the trailering and new space is enough stress for a day. Figuring out humans could wait a day or two. Just the same, I keep an eye on them with binoculars in case something comes up.
I noticed one steer in particular kept its tail in the air and its head raised all day. While a high sense of alertness might serve well on the high range, a raised tail is not a good sign for our farm. An hour after arrival, where the others have their heads in the hay trough, he is moving about and edgy. By the end of the day, the others are well fed, watered and quieted down—not him.
After two weeks everyone continued to look healthy and mostly settled in. Not as settled as I’d like, the one continued to have its tail in the air every time I fed. But I figured once they were on pasture, with acres of space to roam, his tail would drop and everyone would claim the calmness of the existing herd.
Well, we can all dream. After two months that tail was still in air. Not only did that tail go up when I walked out to check everyone each day, but he would take off running to the other end of the field. Inevitably, so would a number of other cows. As the weeks wore on, the character of the herd changed. Though that one steer was by no means a leader, its attitude affected everyone. As a whole they became more skittish, didn’t enjoy eating as deeply as they had, and much more standoffish with me.
Finally, enough was enough. I loaded him up (in doing so he tried jumping a gate bending it all to hell) and sold him to someone down the road who didn’t mind the raised tail.
Two days later and the herd settled down. While it is going to take more time for them to return to the calmness they had, they are eating without worry.
I thought about that steer a couple days ago when I visited with a friend. She told me a story about a staff meeting she had attended a while back. Seems that something had happened that occasioned the boss (this is a business where folk continue to think of being the boss and bossing) got a call from a client due to something that had happened in the field. The problem wasn’t huge, but the boss got a call from the client. So, during the next staff meeting the boss addressed the issue with a tone and edginess that said they did not appreciate the call at all. As the boss talked, their tone got touchier with each sentence, until finally reaching a crescendo saying if this ever happens again the person will be fired!
My friend has told this this story in one form or another over the years. I am always captivated because this is a healthcare business whose work is to care physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of those who hurt. Yet the bosses can’t seem to pull off the same care for themselves and their employees.
There is less difference between people and cows as people would like to think. People and cows are folk of herds. Yes, there are the loners, the hermits, and the ones who take their own path. For the most part though, people like being around people as much as cows like being around cows. Some argue of safety in numbers and that is why the ancient folk started hanging together in groups. But I don’t think so. Rather, I think people like people. They like conversation, different ways of thinking, and what others do well that they don’t do well themselves. And in groups they find a synergistic creativity that cannot be found singly.
For all the goodness of being in a herd or a group, there is the problem of the high tail. For cattle, one high tail (and it doesn’t need be the leader) can throw the herd off their feed, lose trust in humans, and go through fences they never gave thought to before (yep, that happened as well!). The same is true for organizations. One high tail (especially if it is the boss) and the ethos of the organization is upset—People go off their feed or feed too much, fear for their job or their friends job, lose trust in bosses, and start looking for other employment (which is the human equivalent of going through the fence).
It is a sad to know the 1950’s boss-employee model whose base is employees are not to be trusted continues today. All the more sad because it is a model of hurtfulness. Perhaps we don’t have to wonder to awful hard to understand today’s high rates of obesity, alcohol and drugs abuse, spousal and child abuse, environmental damage, suicides, and lack of simple happiness.
I’m not sure what can be done with leaders who manage with fear and a high tail. Obviously, we can’t just load them up sell them down the road to someone else. But I think for the wellbeing of our neighbor and our community, it’s worth a conversation.