Lessons Learned Along the Way – Part 5
Responsibility without authority.
Lars once said, “I’m going to throw you to the wolves.” He gave me an assignment as team leader to motivate and guide a team on projects, but without a title, rank, or authority. It was difficult and painful, but in the end I gained the respect of my co-workers and learned a lot about leadership. Lars called me into his office one day and said: “There’s an opening for a broodmare manager at Calumet Farm. I’ve called Melvin Cinnamon and made an appointment for you to have an interview. Go home, take a shower, and get over there.” Melvin was a tough old hardboot. I was scared of him, but he hired me and taught me. He also opened a lot of doors for me. Anybody and everybody visited Calumet, and Melvin introduced me to them all. I told Melvin I had been invited to a Thoroughbred Club of America function and asked for an afternoon off. His response was: “What do you mean you’ve been invited? Why aren’t you a member?” The next week I received a notice in the mail that my application for membership had been approved. Another time, Melvin told me I had been nominated to be secretary-treasurer of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers’ Club. “I don’t want to be secretary-treasurer,” I said. “Too bad. I’m counting the votes, and you’re going to win.”
I had been on the job a matter of weeks. I could not put my finger on it, but one of the mares seemed not quite right. I put her in a paddock and told the short-shift night watchman to keep a close eye on her and to let me know immediately if she showed any change. I went home and took a shower, and before I got out of the shower the night watchman called and said the mare shuddered and fell over dead. Not believing this could be possible, I hurriedly dressed and went to the barn. Sure enough, she was dead. I went back to the house and told my wife we could stop unpacking because I was about to be fired. I called Melvin and told him what had happened, which he took surprisingly well. The next day while waiting for the necropsy report, I was beating myself up pretty badly over what I could have or should have done differently. Melvin said to me,
Son, there are two rules in this business. Rule number one is that horses die. Rule number two is that farm managers can’t change rule number one.
Not that Melvin was callous. Far from it. He dreaded euthanizing horses even when it was clear it was the only humane option. But he had been around the farm long enough to know. As it turned out, the mare that died suddenly could not have been saved no matter what we might have tried. But all of us who care about horses hate to see them die, and it is natural to be despondent and to second-guess ourselves. I hope Melvin’s words have been a source of comfort to the people working for me when dealing with a loss.
There is nothing new under the sun.
Melvin was an older man when I worked for him. He had been around, and he had seen a lot. There were a lot of “new” ideas floating around about how to raise horses, and in my youthful enthusiasm I was ready to try them all. Melvin would say, “Oh yeah, I remember years ago when so-and-so tried that. It didn’t work.” Most “new” ideas have been tried and rejected before. While I strongly believe in innovation, I did learn from him to take new ideas with a grain of salt and to consider their merits carefully. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to not be the first to try something and not to be the last.
Learn how to read your boss.
Melvin told me we would start teasing the next morning at 5 o’clock. At about ten minutes to 5, I saw Melvin drive by my house on the way to the barn. I jumped in my truck and was there a few minutes before 5. Melvin was obviously angry. The next morning I was there at 4:45. When I arrived at 4:45 the following morning, Melvin was already there and was obviously angry. The next morning I was there at 4:30, and the next day Melvin was already there and angry at 4:30. We backed it all the way up to 4 a.m. before I figured out that Melvin wanted to be there first, and he wanted to be angry. We went back to 5.