The other day I talked about my interest in reality television as a management training tool, as well as my current fascination with the PBS reality show Texas Ranch House. I just finished watching the last two episodes in the eight-part series, and it was a wrenching (and all too compelling) viewing experience. In the end, despite a successful cattle drive, the entire crew of cowboys walked off the ranch two days before the conclusion of the experience, expressing their solidarity with a cowboy who had been unfairly fired.
As I expected, ranch "owner" Bill Cooke's failure to knit his family and his crew into a cohesive unit, working toward common goals, proved to be his undoing. He compounded this failure with some tactical missteps [Oh, so when it comes time to negotiate final wages, after 2+ months of conciliatory management, now you're a hardass?], but the fact that his wife, daughters and housemaid (on the one hand) and his cowboys (on the other) viewed each other not as comrades, or even as complementary teams, but as opposing forces insured that any conflicts would be magnified and that no one was going to cut anyone else some slack if there was a problem. And there were plenty of problems.
In fairness to Bill Cooke, I think the producers made it harder on him than they should have--by bringing in one new hand (to replace the three who had to leave prematurely) far too late in the process, by thrusting him repeatedly into negotiations where he had essentially zero leverage--but that said, there were quite a few things he could have done differently as the nominal leader of the enterprise.
OK, smart guy--what would you have done differently? Why, I'm so glad you asked.
- Built a sense of team identity through shared experience--in this case, regular communal dinners among everyone on the ranch. The narrator (the outstanding Randy Quaid, at times doing his level best to rein in his disbelief at various mistakes) even noted that many ranch owners and their families ate at a common table with their hands. The Cooke's efforts to overcome the gap between them and their crew with occasional festivities were far too little, far too late.
- Spent more one-on-one time with every member of the crew. Historically inaccurate advice perhaps, but it seemed as though every time Bill Cooke was talking with one of his crew members, he was delivering bad news (sound clip), and that's just not good.
- Used both the meals and the one-on-one talks to discuss and understand everyone's goals and responsibilities, and to get a sense of whether they felt they were succeeding (and if not, what it would take to allow them to succeed.) Yes, I know this is an anachonistic 21st-century perspective, but despite everyone's best efforts to achieve historial accuracy, they were still 21st-century people, and a little effort--any effort--on Cooke's part to express concern about whether people's individual needs were being met would have built up a store of goodwill that he could have drawn upon when tough decisions needed to be made.
- Presented a united and consistent front to his crew. Mr. and Mrs. Cooke utterly failed to understand how their dynamic as a couple affected the crew. I didn't expect a 21st-century couple to fully embrace 19th-century gender roles, but the Cookes tried to have it both ways, seeking to manage the ranch's affairs together while paying lip service to Mr. Cooke's authority as ranch "owner" vis-a-vis the cowboys. As a result, Cooke lost the respect of his crew, who came to see him as a mouthpiece for his wife's decisions. I suspect that this led Cooke to oscillate between two vastly different management styles--usually conciliatory, but occasionally hard-nosed--and this inconsistency made Cooke seem unreliable at best, disingenuous at worst.
Damn, everyone involved seemed to have a hard time, and I doubt if anyone looks back on the experience fondly. But this certainly proves Steven Johnson's thesis that reality television is engaging not because it's prurient, but because it's cognitively demanding, and my corollary that these shows actually provide some of the best management and leadership training materials you could possibly ask for.