Leadership & the Incredible Shrinking Horse

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Back in 1969, I had the honor of attending the U.S. Navy’s Senior Chaplains’ School located in Newport RI.  At the time, the head of the school was a Roman Catholic priest and Navy Captain named John O’Connor.  It was the first day of school and Captain O’Connor’s job was to introduce this new class of twenty-four students to the concept of leadership in the modern Navy and world at-large.

That morning the man who was to become Cardinal Archbishop of New York painted a picture for me that altered my view of the nature of leadership for the rest of my life.

He started his talk with us that morning by asking what on the surface seemed a pretty simple question, “What kind of a people do you think were the first officers in the Roman Army?”  Various members of the class proceeded to offer different possible answers:  “The sons of the patricians” or “The best fighters” or “The most intelligent soldiers.”

Try as we might, no one in the class seemed to hit upon the answer Capt. O’Connor was looking for.  Finally, he said, “I’ll tell you what I think. I think–a pregnant pause–I think it was the guys on the horses.”

A collective look of  “Whaaat!, the guys on the horses” appeared on the face of nearly everyone in the room.

“Yes, the guys with the horses,” Capt. O’Connor repeated.  “And do you knowofficer why I think that?” he asked rhetorically.  There were blank looks all around.

“Because the guys on the horses were higher up and could see more of the battlefield than the common foot soldier, who could see little beyond the helmet of the legionnaire in front of him.  The foot soldiers marching into the peril of battle needed someone who could really see what was ahead and tell them how best to attack or how best to avoid danger–how not only be victorious but also survive to fight another day.”Roman legion

Capt. O’Connor allowed that it was true that there were other factors which contributed to the Roman legionnaires following their leaders into battle with confidence and bravery but he said he wanted to focus on this one element because it pointed to a particularly important difference in the type of leadership that would work in the modern world from that which had worked previously.

The modern world he said is not like the ancient world in terms of who can see what is going on and who has the vital knowledge that allows enterprises to succeed or armies to win battles.  He told us that with each year, the sometimes gradual and sometimes revolutionary changes in communication, education and technology, critical information and important decisions were no longer the sole domain of farseeing heroes mounted on a noble steeds.  He said that it was as if year by year the mounted nobleman’s horse got a little shorter, a little smaller and  a little shorter again until its rider now sat in a saddle on a horse that no longer enabled the once proud officer to see over the heads of his own men.  The leader of old, Capt O’Connor said had ridden an ever shrinking horse through the ages to a point where he was now as dependent on the foot soldier as the foot soldier had once been on him..

“Now,” he said “the officer needs the troopers to tell him where he is and vice versa”

He went on to close his remarks by saying that he hoped that as we proceeded through the course of the Senior Chaplains’ Program  we would not cling to old and outmoded notions of command and control leadership but begin to open ourselves to a new notion of collaborative and distributed leadership which found its strength in cohesive teams, mutual support, clear and direct communication and the conviction that it is unlikely that any of us sees the whole picture at any one time.  For Capt O’Connor virtues like empathy, openness to novelty and humility needed to stand along side moral and physical courage, loyalty, determination and decisiveness as hallmarks of leadership and that those leadership characteristics could no longer be seen as characteristics of single individual but rather of groups.  Leadership, for him. was a collective not individual phenomenon.

For The Rev. Dr. Admiral John Cardinal O’Connor the horse that once provided for a special view of the world had shrunk and the age of the privilege of far-sight being limited to the mounted few was long over. We now needed to build leadership into our groups (businesses, armies, navies, social action groups, governments, schools and school departments etc. etc.)–into the fabric of our society.  Quite a mouthful for my first day at Chaplains’ School!


I suspect that Cardinal O’Connor would not want to have to defend his “the guys on the horses” thesis to a group of military or other historians.  What he said that day was more of a metaphor than a lesson in historical events.  The world, he was saying, had changed from one where few had the time to think or  the range of vision to see a wide scope to a time in which many more of us think and have a wide and far reaching field of vision.  Further, the world in which we live is so much more complex and interdependent that no matter how tall the horse one sits astride the view defies the comprehension of any single individual or even small group of individuals.  We therefore must work together, take one another by the hand and lead ourselves into the future.

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