James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer - Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead

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Flight of the Buffalo: Boom or bust?

Mar 23, 2004
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Some great concepts within these pages.

Cons:Seems slanted towards a particular type of business environment, and it is not mine...

The Bottom Line: Didn't I just fill this out in the Pro's and Con's section?


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

Why I bought this book

My company recently allowed me to attend a seminar aptly titled Managing Through Leadership Skills. This was a workshop facilitated by an outside contractor over a three day period to assist in developing leadership skills for middle and upper management employees. I was very pleased with the material presented as well as the instructor. During the course of this workshop, the instructor mentioned the importance of reading about your chosen profession, management. Further, he recommended quite a list of books to the class to read. I have purchased quite a few of these books(including Flight of the Buffalo), and as I have time I have been reading them. He gave this book his highest recommendation, and as such I chose to read this one first. It was reported to present a new leadership paradigm that would help to shape and mold us into a ‘new’ manager who was more effective and results-oriented. Did it live up to its promise(and recommendation)? Let’s discuss the book first, and then I will discuss my feelings on it…

Important information

Flight of the Buffalo is a management self-help book 355 pages in length that was written by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer in 1993. A little about each author, from the inside cover of the book:

James A. Belasco is the author of the bestselling Teaching the Elephant to Dance: Empowering Change in Your Organization and a professor of management at San Diego State University. He has consulted and done research with such organizations as IBM, AT&T, Royal Dutch Shell, Ralston Purina, and Merck.”

Ralph C. Stayer is 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 country—and made Stayer the hero of Tom Peters’s management video, The Leadership Alliance. Today, Stayer consults with such organizations as AT&T, Frito-Lay, BMW, and McDonnell Douglas.”

Normally I would not write too much information on the author of the book, but in the case of a leadership book, it is important to understand the validity of the authors. I was impressed when I read their short blurbs and was expecting good things from the book!

What is it all about?

In 1993, this book was a new leadership paradigm(empowering the employees) that the authors developed through their management careers. To illustrate, the book is broken out into eight sections:

Part I: Our Personal Leadership Journey
Part II: The Intellectual Capitalism Leadership Paradigm
Part III: Leading the Journey
Part IV: Determining Focus and Direction
Part V: Remove the Obstacles that Prevent Great Performance
Part VI: Developing Ownership
Part VII: Stimulating Self Directed Actions
Part VIII: Learning to Be the Lead Goose

Segue: This book is written in the first-person as a lesson/discussion with the reader. At the very beginning of the book, the authors introduce themselves and then explain that for the remainder of the book it will be written as one voice, as one person. They caution the reader to not worry about(nor try to figure out) which experience belongs to each individual, as they are writing as a tandem and their experiences are melded, so to speak. More on that later.

The book begins with the author explaining his issues with leading an organization from Good to Great (to steal a phrase from another famous author). He begins with his trials and tribulations in the early years when he tried to be the problem solver. Everyone would come to him with their problems, and they expected him to ‘fix’ them. He wanted to understand why his people did not take on their own problems and solve them for themselves. He was working himself to death, and did not like it.

That was when he had the first realization: He was the problem. He would force the decisions to go his way, and he had conditioned his people to come to him to fix their problems. Part of this was intentional, as he wanted to be involved and enjoyed solving the problems that came to him. Also along those lines he often felt that he was the only one qualified to answer some of the questions. Some of this was unintentional as well, such as the fact that he did not turn those people back when they did come to him to fix problems that they were qualified and able to solve themselves. Once he accepted this fact, he was able to move on to the next step in his journey.

Without going completely through the next section, suffice it to say that he gives some great techniques for getting people to accept ownership for their problems. That is not to say that the manager’s office door is now closed, but if the people have the authority, responsibility and skill level to make their own decisions, they need to do just that. Do not empower them to shed their responsibility upward, as that breeds a corp of followers instead of leaders.

The next section goes to the heart of the journey, which is to get the employees to understand that the customer is their ultimate boss. How does the customer perceive great performance? What barriers, either systemic or non-systemic, are present to keep them from performing to this level? What can be done to break down these barriers? Finally, whose responsibility is it to perform the agreed-upon tasks? Asking and answering these questions will help everyone in the organization to fulfill their own part in the success of the business.
Overall point

The author takes us through this analysis with several examples and short stories of either his own business or businesses he has consulted with. The paradigm is comparing the lead buffalo to the head goose. The lead buffalo is the head of the herd, and the herd will blindly follow him anywhere, even over a cliff to oblivion. The lead goose is a constantly changing champion which leads the gaggle in the right direction. The geese fly far overhead the buffalo, and generally get where they need to go, while the paradigm shows the buffalo to be slow and plodding earth-borne animals.

If you read the book, ask the questions in your organization and get the answers and ownership to shift downward, you have empowered your employees and created the lead goose environment. Therefore your business will flourish, right?

My experience

While I did get a lot of good pointers and one-liners out of this book, the overall book was not something that I felt benefited me very much. I began to be turned off about ’s of the way through the book, as it became more customer-centric. I will explain that later. I did find the first portion of the book very helpful, and used some of the analysis to look inward and reevaluate my leadership skills. I too need to allow others below me to make decisions and run with the results, even if it is not the way I would do it. This is a good lesson for us all, in my opinion.

The second half of the book would be much more beneficial to an organization which dealt directly with customers, and even more so in a sales driven office. My place of work would be hard pressed to follow through on the ‘instructions’ in the book for a few reasons.

The basic premise of the Journey in this book is to find out what is important to your customer and strive to accomplish that through breaking down the barriers and assigning responsibilities. There are several good examples in the book of places that have worked with their customer to deliver an experience as opposed to a product and been able to increase their profitability through increased perceived value, and therefore pricing structure. Also, the book points out that the organization may appropriate market share from the competitor by meeting the customers’ desires and needs.

While I do believe that this is true and have worked in industries where it is most definitely good practice, the industry that I currently work in is a commodity through and through, and on top of that it is regulated by the government. In a true commodity business, it is very hard(if not impossible) to differentiate yourself from your competitor on anything but price! Add to that the fact that the government controls the price through product quotas and it is impossible to meet this goal.

The second premise, gaining market share through meeting the customer’s needs, is also impossible in this environment. As I said, the industry that I am in is regulated by the government to the point that the government sets the total product quota for the industry. In addition to this, they also set the quota for each company within the industry. Is there a way around this, such as lowering your costs, forcing the competitor out, and then taking their quota? Nope. If that were to happen, the government would divvy out the quota to all companies equally. Also, if we tried to buy out a failing competitor, the sale would be blocked due to antitrust/monopoly/oligopoly questions. It works for Microsoft, but not for us…

I am sure that the authors could come into our plant and explain that given the conditions our customers are the corporate office, each successive department, etc., and to some degree they would be right. We could(and do) ask questions regarding what the corporate folks want, and we of course try to meet those objectives. We also write down the objectives as well as quantify and qualify what the individuals need to do to meet those objectives. We then hold them accountable for their actions, so in some fashion we are already practicing this paradigm, although not to prescription presented in the book.

Is all lost?

No, by no means is all lost. I do not feel as though I wasted my money on this book. I did get quite a few good ideas gleaned from the first half of the book, and I enjoyed the read. There were several good one liners that you could frame and put on a wall for inspiration, as well!

One minor issue I take with the book is the fact that they explain early on that there are two distinctly different authors, and then tell you not to try to distinguish between the two. I found it very hard not to do so. I also found it annoying that I felt guilty when I caught myself doing it!

A major issue I have with this book is that it speaks in broad terms of catch phrases and buzz words such as Intellectual Capitalism and Empowerment. However, when it comes down to it there is very little for the reader to use in the way of actual techniques for implementation. Perhaps I am asking too much, as that would kill the consulting business that they run now. I am not looking for a prescription to roll this out in my particular plant, but some more specifics would be wonderful.

I would recommend this book for anyone who is in a fairly competitive and sales driven environment. The management of this type of an environment would benefit most from this book, in my opinion, as the book is slanted towards this. Others in production management will get many useful ideas from the first half of the book, but don’t pick it up looking for a prescription to make your business more efficient, lean, and productive. It is not there.

Note: This is my first review of a book, at least so far as I can remember. I would appreciate any feedback you may have, as I plan to write more on the management books I am currently reading to help others determine what may be a good investment for their dollar. Thanks,

Jason


Recommend this product? Yes

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