The old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” It is a useful colloquialism when it comes to leadership. It reminds us that people are generally only going to do what they want to do… that you can present an opportunity for folk, but they won’t generally take the opportunity in front of them unless they want to.
But a boss can “make him drink.” Managers often have the authority to dictate… to simply make a decision and issue an edict, thus “making him drink.” These dictates, though, often have little lasting impact and may even instigate a backlash (overt or covert). To mangers who lead by dictate I say, “You can make him drink, but you have to lead a horse to water.”
Leaders lead. There are certainly times when there is danger, emergency, or limited opportunity in which a leader needs to invoke the authority embedded in a chain of command, but for most of us, most of the time, the work of leadership has very little to do with dictate. It is about determining, defining, and delivering a better future.
A dehydrated horse nearing death may need to have its head plunged into the trough for survival, but most horses need to be led to the water, shown the way so that they can enjoy the good water for a long happy life.