How do you manage fiercely independent spirits?

Ask what’s this person’s currency is

Herding cats is a management term people use to describe the futile attempt to control and organize a class of entities which are inherently uncontrollable.

The earliest available reference of this idiom dates back to an article about a software design company from the eighties. The phrase later popped up in the nineties in reference to dealing with writers, and has since become a catchall for managing anyone with a fiercely independent spirit, from toddlers to actors to physicians.

Essentially, these are people who do whatever they want, whenever they feel like doing it.

Sounds like my first report card from kindergarten. Those poor teachers. My poor parents.

But as frustrating and chaotic as it sounds to herd cats, it’s actually skill that anyone can learn. Even if you’re a dog person.

It has less to with managerial tactics and more to do with mindful intentions.

Beginning with empathy. To galvanize any team, we first accept that each member has their own individual set of thoughts, feelings, values and beliefs. And we constantly ask ourselves questions to further understand their motivations.

What’s this person’s currency? Whom do they need to answer to and look good for? What is guaranteed to make them feel they got a return on their investment? What battle might they be fighting that we know nothing about? What is their unique definition of success?

Once we learn some of these traits about the cats we’re attempting to herd, we can tailor our approach to each. That might mean shot gunning certain tasks for people with varying timetables and commitments, creating multiple versions of the same document to satisfy people’s many learning styles, even hiding details and variables from those who would only become derailed from knowing them.

Certainly, we can’t make everybody happy, but we can find out what makes everybody happy, and with our intention and attention, reverse engineer our interactions accordingly.

This brings me to another element to effective cat herding. Assembling a mass of distinct parts into a coherent whole. Managing a delicate yet dynamic union of disparate elements, be it human or otherwise.

Having managed hundreds of projects over the past twenty years, including publishing more than fifty book and twelve musical albums, my experience tells me this.

Expert cat herds are masters of acceptance. You accept that along the journey of any project, people and things will go astray. And when the inevitably do, you don’t allow that to bother you.

You let it go, respect the process, trust that what needs to come back will, act kindly towards yourself and keep moving the story forward.

Babuta writes about this in his award winning blog on zen habits:

Accept that uncertainty and disorder, and relax into them. Stay with your intention despite the chaos. Keep pushing into the discomfort with it, go forward, and stay compassionate for any missteps or interruptions.

If you find yourself in a position where inherently uncontrollable entities are swirling around your head, don’t void your bowels in your litter box just yet.

Pressure is a choice.

Start where you are, help others start where they are, and have faith that you’ll herd all the cats to where you want them to be.

How do you manage fiercely independent spirits?



Author. Speaker. Songwriter. Filmmaker. Inventor. CEO/Founder of Pioneer of Personal Creativity Management (PCM). I also wear a nametag 24/7.

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Author. Speaker. Songwriter. Filmmaker. Inventor. CEO/Founder of Pioneer of Personal Creativity Management (PCM). I also wear a nametag 24/7.