When I was a teenager I wanted to be a cowboy instead of finishing high school. I was sent to work for a friend of my father who owned a ranch up in the mountains. I had no idea that the work I was about to begin would be so close to the job of CEO I had forty years later.
In the early summer we rounded up cattle who had foraged in the high meadows throughout the spring, fattening up and having their calves.
Every day we’d go out and gather the cattle in small groups, collecting them in corrals a couple of hours’ ride from the ranch.
When we’d gathered around a hundred cows and calves, several of us would be detailed to drive the herd back to the central pens at ranch headquarters for branding.
Because I was the youngest, I had to ride “drag”, which meant that I rode behind the herd, making sure that we didn’t lose any of the valuable livestock.
Now you might want to picture this — a hundred head of cattle means that four hundred hooves were trampling the ground directly in front of me.
It was summer. It was dry. And very dusty.
I had to tie my bandana around my mouth and nose so I could breathe.
And visibility was about ten feet. And if we got back to the ranch and the count showed that we were missing any animals, guess who got sent back with a flashlight to find them, instead of having dinner?
So it was VERY important to me that I not let any stragglers get past me .My job was reduced to staring into a dust cloud, watching for a twitching tail to appear.
When I spotted one, I would spur my horse towards the straggler and drive it back into the rear of the herd.
I’ve found much of life (and particularly management) is like that job of riding drag at the rear of a herd of cattle, not being able to see or breathe very well, but focused on seeing my target (goal) as soon as it becomes visible, and pursuing it in the right direction.
I found this to be true of my work as a CEO. In fact, there seem to be many situations in life like this. If you keep your attention focused on the blank future in front, you will be the first to notice your target when it comes into view.
This has proved true whether the blank wall was a sales objective, a lab experiment during product development, as a parent trying to figure out what my teenaged son was up to next, and even when I’m shopping for my wife.
Keeping your vision focused on a target that’s not visible, even when you can’t see clearly means that – when it becomes visible – you’re prepared to go after it.
Sometimes, that’s all the edge you need.