Leaders In The Field

By Todd Brown

Leadership often means directing and offering support while staying out of the way.


Like a driver of draft horses, workplace leaders need to know how to get the best out of their team.

This has been the case for hundreds of years down on the farm.

Look at the driver of a team of draft horses. The horses have to work together to accomplish a goal, such as plowing a field.

To do that, they need a leader who:

  • Knows what he or she is doing

  • Encourages the horses

  • Supplies necessary information

  • Provides the correct equipment

  • Instills trust.

This is management. Managers and employees must work together to accomplish a task.

Note the location of the driver who is leading the team in the farm example. The driver is not in front--as the word “leader” may suggest--but actually behind the team. This person is not pushing from behind, but rather directing from that position.

The horses are the “front-liners.” The driver communicates what is needed, evaluates results, and makes the necessary adjustments.

Before ever getting horses to plow a field, for example, the leader must determine the following:

  • How much field can be plowed with this particular team in one day?

  • How can the team be motivated to extend their ability?

  • How long can the horses work at peak level?

Planning for both peak performance and any possible roadblocks will more accurately help to estimate the amount of time it takes to finish a job.

The driver--assuming he is also the farmer--has prepared his team to perform this task. He has conditioned them, kept them healthy, and given the team the knowledge needed to operate at a safe and productive level.

Now they just need the right equipment.

Just like in an office, a leader needs to plan how to reach the goal and determine the factors that will help.

Proper Equipment
Each individual's needs and abilities must be assessed.

When it comes to arming a group with the proper equipment, note that tools are not meant to restrict or control a team. Instead, tools should allow the group to perform tasks in a safe and proper manner.

For example, horses may be able to pull the plow with a rope around their necks, and that might work in the beginning; it is certainly easier than connecting the heavy harness.

However, ropes will quickly hurt the horses and ruin them for future tasks. A complete harness and additional equipment look bulky and may seem extraneous, but they are necessities for efficiency.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the driver’s—or supervisor’s—leadership style is the lines that connect the team.

On a farm, lines connect to each horse evenly so the driver can control the amount of pull needed by each horse to complete a task.

If the driver signals the horses to move and he has not researched how they will act, the result could be disastrous. The horses could spring away if given too much slack on the line, or back up into the equipment if too much pressure is applied.

Equal Treatment
A good driver of the horses wants the team to work together. For example, give one horse an apple in front of another one and see what kind of reaction occurs.

Although employees may be forced to work together, a good leader will recognize that each person will have different talents, strengths, shortcomings, and needs.

In either case, the person in charge must adapt to those differences to convince the team to work effectively. And each member of the team must be treated fairly; no one should receive more than the others.

However, not everyone can be treated exactly the same. The leader needs to determine the best method of training, directing, evaluating, correcting, and rewarding each member to get the team to perform at the highest level.

Every team needs the right equipment.

It takes time to do these tasks in a consistent manner. The person in charge must be consistent in his or her directing style so as not to confuse anyone. Individuals will expect to be treated the same for what they do well, and for what they don’t do well.

Evaluate The Group
Once a task is completed, the leader must evaluate the quality of the work and the methods used:

  • What would improve the team’s performance?

  • What were the obstacles the team faced?

  • How did I communicate the changes to them?

  • When did I communicate those changes?

Whether it’s on a field or in an office, the leader needs to know the team’s skills, abilities, and personalities to make those decisions. The biggest question he or she must answer is, “How do I motivate this team to go and do it all over again tomorrow?”

Apples, please.

Todd Brown is the Resource Management Division’s Operations Branch Manager at the Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia. He grew up as, and remains at heart, a farmer. He can be reached at todd.brown@fairfaxcounty.gov .