Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead

Reviewed by: 
James A. Belasco, Ralph C. Stayer
Warner Books
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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Having owned a copy of Flight of the Buffalo for several years I recently picked it up to find a reference to something and, being reminded of what a good book it is, I found myself reading it over again.

What I find so appealing about this book is its “down to earth” approach. So many management and leadership books paint the world as a wonderful place where, if you follow the philosophy espoused, success will surely follow. Flight of the Buffalo is different in that it is written from a more realistic and practical point of view where making change happen, means making people change or changing the people.

The book relies heavily on practical examples taken from Ralph Stayer’s experiences as the former CEO of Johnsonville Foods, where his courageous, pioneering innovations made it one of the most progressive and successful employee-run companies in the United States

Flight of the Buffalo contrasts two different metaphors for leadership. The “herd mentality” is one in which command is centralised and the leader directs and controls his staff in the same way as the dominant buffalo controls a herd. This was a style of management that was more applicable to a past era, an age of “managerial capitalism” which was about the management of physical assets and the supervision of labour. The approach proposed by Belasco and Strayer is described by reference to a flock of geese, who fly in tight formation, but where the leadership of the flock changes frequently. This, the authors suggest, is a more appropriate approach to leadership in the age of “intellectual capitalism” where knowledge and intellectual capital form the basis of the economy.

In traditional business management structures, there has always been one central manager, the “lead buffalo,” who is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the company, making all of the important decisions. If anything happens to the lead buffalo, or if he makes a wrong decision, the rest of the herd typically stand by not knowing what to do.

By contrasting the buffalo paradigm with the goose paradigm, it becomes easy to see the benefits of the empowered “team” approach, where everyone is involved in getting the group to the ultimate destination.

But the authors point out that implementing this empowered approach is not easy. They describe many mistakes that they both made in their own companies on the way to mastering the “geese” technique. Those mistakes cost them valuable employees, business relationships and lost income.

Given that the book was written more than a decade ago and that during that time the economies of the West have moved dramatically in the direction of the knowledge economies the book describes, the question must be asked as to whether its philosophy and teachings are still relevant today?

Unfortunately, I believe the answer is yes. Although most companies are now far more flexible and democratic than they were in 1993, the fact remains that far too many managers still wish to control rather than lead and far too many employees turn up at work for something to do, rather than to do something.

Flight of the Buffalo is easy to read and is a book that I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in improving their leadership skills.

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