The HR leader slowly shook her head, frustrated she was unable to convince her CEO to support her talent management proposal. “Well,” she concluded with a chagrined look, “you can lead a horse to water . . . “ And, with one phrase, the blame had shifted.
This was not her problem anymore. She believed her design was sound and her arguments persuasive. Any reasonable person, she thought, would endorse her vision. If the CEO hadn’t bought in, it was due to a fundamental flaw in his thinking or character.
On the plane home, that tired idiom ran though my mind. If you actually lead a horse to water and it doesn’t drink, is that necessarily the horse’s fault? While I had tortured analogies before, I hadn’t yet tortured an idiom. So this was the perfect opportunity. I realized that there were actually three distinct possibilities in that situation.
You’re Leading Poorly: The journey with this horse has been so tortuous that the horse is now pissed off, exhausted or both. You’ve guided it on a meandering, indirect route. The trip was long, and many times the horse suspected you were lost and simply pretending to know the way. The part about the water wasn’t even mentioned until about halfway through. Even then, it was something vague about a “beverage.”
In this case, the horse may well be thirsty but it has no confidence in your ability to lead him to water.
The Water’s Bad: Let’s assume this is a logical horse, an experienced horse. It’s not this horse’s first rodeo. The horse is well aware what high quality water looks and tastes like. You’ve led this horse to water and told him to drink it. The horse hesitates. He looks into the water and something appears off. He asks you a few questions: “How do you know this water will actually quench my thirst? Isn’t this same water you asked me to try a few years ago that was actually stagnant? Are there other beverage options available that might taste even better?”You smile condescendingly at the horse, grab his neck and shove his head into the water. “Everyone else drinks this water! You should too.” The horse holds its breath. It’s now wet, angry and extremely unlikely to drink what it considers to be foul water.
In this case, the horse would be happy to drink, but you’ve led him to bad water.
You haven’t made him thirsty: You know this horse has previously been led to water and was happy to drink. In fact, when he has liked the water he’s even told his stable mates about it and convinced them to drink it too. Right now, however, this is a contented horse and you’ve done nothing to make him thirsty. You haven’t described how water will make him run faster or have a richer coat. You haven’t exercised the horse until he realizes he needs water.
In this case, you haven’t convinced that water will in any way benefit him.
There is one other possibility if you lead your horse to water and it doesn’t drink. You may have a stupid horse. In that case, you can spend years trying to educate the horse or, better yet, you can find a new horse. But until you rule out the three factors above, let’s not be so quick to shift blame to the horse.