Friday, October 17, 2008

You can make him drink, but you have to lead a horse to water.

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.


Anonymous said...

Ah . . . the old salt in the hay trick.

Neary said...


Maybe the subject of a future article. There certainly are mangers who seem to only be able to solve the problems that they create themselves. Worse yet… they want to be lauded for solving the problem that they created in the first place.

Anonymous said...

A woman stood to testify of how God has been dealing with her about surrendering to His will in her life. After a few introductory comments to that effect, she boldy summed up her thoughts on the subject by citing an old quote. She said, "I am sure you have all felt this way at times in your walk with God, and it brings to mind the old saying that you are all familiar with, 'You can lead a horse to drink, but you can't make him water.'" Of course, the meeting went downhill from there.

However, in light of your blog and leadership thought using a "variance" of that old saying, I am wondering if the woman's rendering of the saying is even more applicable to your suggestion than the original? Initial word picture aside...leading a horse to drink, and forcing him to do so, does not necessarily assume that there is a full appreciation of the opportunity, even if he has taken a drink, or been forced to do so? Watering a horse is a nurturing, fulfilling, and necessary function that may not always be fully understood or even appreciated by the recipient. Maybe I'm stretching the analogy here, but it did bring that old story to mind and another approach to your thoughts.

In the final analysis, I certainly agree with your premise. Leading people, which requires much wisdom and courage, does not always assume that those you lead are drinking or watering as the leader intended. Bringing people along in a decision so that there is understanding and buy-in, particuarlay amongst the influencers around you, is always a key and a preferable approach to leadership in my estimation. It is a goal I personally strive to achieve, though not always untainted.