You Can Lead A Horse To Water...

Michael McTague  |

“…but you can’t make him drink.” This myth worked its way into management DNA. Executives call it out whenever employees balk at a directive from the top or whenever employees do not ratify a proposal or more generally when things don’t go well. Employees use it to express their frustration by implying that the whole plan was never good to begin with and that they knew better.

Following the sworn duty of the myth buster, this myth needs examination.

The management view is that those at the top show employees how to do things correctly. For example, an excellent compensation plan or benefits package can be designed and presented; employees should accept it. But what happens when a new product is designed and launched and nothing works. Employee whining kills the new 401K plan; and the superb product flops on the market. Management says employees didn’t follow directions. Well, let’s see.

Do Employees Follow?

The default position with this myth is that leaders lead, if you pardon the tautology, and that followers fail to follow. An AP story says, “Even Americans who are lucky enough to have work in this economy are becoming more unhappy with their jobs, according to a new survey that found only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their work.” The Conference Board, who published the results, states that this is the lowest satisfaction level in 22 years of surveys. Consider the implications of this survey. It means that people work because they have to – to make money, to eat, to pay bills, etc. – not because they enjoy it and certainly not because they respond well to their workplace leaders.

An executive friend told me that he had worked for 21 bosses during his career and that eleven were OK. That’s pretty close to the 45% figure reported by AP. Billions have been invested in employee motivation. It appears that these well-intentioned efforts only achieve partial success.

Do Managers Lead?

Maybe we should examine the leaders rather than those who are being led. From personal experience working for several less than superior managers – Boy, do I have stories! – the Conference Board survey seems accurate. Here is one stunning personal experience.

Personal Vignette:

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The President of an organization would reject all suggestions, often making fun of the person who suggested the idea. A few days or a week later he would introduce the idea as his own. He knew he would achieve management support because most of his direct reports were toadies he chose. (As I frequently tell people, “You can’t make this stuff up.”)

The implication of the survey and the personal story is that leadership is rare. We celebrate it when we find it, but we often can’t find it. Many organizations are managed by edict, directive and a soft form of coercion. “Do it or you’ll be fired.” “You’re lucky to have a job – any job – in this economy. So, finish the project now.”

Employee Motivation Slips Over Time

If you have interviewed candidates, you know that most employees start off with attractive even lofty career goals. People who complete their degrees say in their first interviews that they want to “make money for the company,” “use their skills in a caring environment,” “join a team of professionals.” These new hires are revved up and ready to perform. So, why do so many – nearly half according to the surveys – feel so bad about their jobs? Consider these typical situations:

  • A person enjoys selling insurance but management demands increased sales in a down economy.
  • A salesperson increases sales to a major company and management downplays it saying that it is only “repeat business.”

Disheartening but all too common! Despite these downers, people work diligently, making and saving money and doing all the things money brings – eating, paying a mortgage, saving for their children’s education, taking vacations. But all of this has little to do with being led. Maybe we are really looking at poor leadership.


This myth does not confine itself to the office. Now that Quantitative Easing III has rolled out, has the economy picked up as a direct result of QE I, II and III together? Interest rates are low, but corporate borrowing is stuck in neutral. Is the fault with companies that don’t borrow or with the assumptions of Quantitative Easing?

Excellent leaders notwithstanding, it appears that the myth – “You Can Lead A Horse To Water But You Can’t Make Him Drink” -- has it backwards. The correct myth – the one people really believe and that managers live out every day – is: “You can make a horse drink but you can’t lead him to water.”

Stay tuned – another myth will be “busted” next month. Please comment on this myth and let us know which myths need exposure.

Michael McTague, Ph.D. is Senior Vice President at Able Global Partners, a private equity firm in New York City

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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