Organizing like a Cow

16 February 2019

This is one of the stories from my new book, a collection of my TWOGs, entitled Bedtime Stories for Managers

                                                          (diagram from Socket Software)

This bedtime story may seem to be over the moon. It is not! To pick up on an ad that appeared some years ago for a major software company, the drawing above is not a cow. It’s a chart of a cow—its parts. In a healthy cow, these parts don’t even know that they are parts; they just work together harmoniously. So, would you like your organization to work like a chart? Or like a cow?

This is a serious question. Ponder it. Cows have no trouble working like cows. Nor, for that matter, does each of us, physiologically at least. So why do we have so much trouble working together socially? Are we that confused about organizing, for example, all this obsession with charts?

I discuss this cow in our International Masters Program for Managers ( One time, in the module we hold in India, while crossing the bustling streets of Bangalore, the managers experienced another story about cows. As recounted to me by Dora Koop, a colleague at McGill: “The first day we were told that when we crossed the street in India we had to ‘walk like a cow.’ The whole group had to stay together, and we were warned not to do anything unexpected. So we just moved slowly across the street and the traffic went around us. Throughout the whole program, people used this cow metaphor [recalling the other one, about working like a cow].”

Picture this: a mass of people, all as one, advancing steadily and cooperatively through what looks like chaos. Now imagine the people of your organization advancing steadily and cooperatively through what looks like its own chaos.

In walking like a cow, we have an answer to working like a cow: it’s about walking and working together. Beyond the sacred cow of leadership lies the idea of communityship, a word I made up to put leadership in its place.

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. For more metaphors, and sweeter dreams, please order your own copy of Bedtime Stories for ManagersThis particular story first appeared on 15 December 2015, as “Working like a cow by walking like a cow.” 


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