Every now and then I face a familiar situation in companies I engage w/—crew members, who have—accidentally, subconsciously or consciously, unintentionally or intentionally—become Sacred Cows, and as a consequence of this—the breeding ground of personal and organisational deformations.
Why are Sacred Cows bad?
Examined in isolation, the Sacred Cows are frequently Swiss Army knife crew members—knowledgeable and capable.
To see the Scarecrow one should see them in context.
Such crew members are usually—
—disproportionally developed, compared to the rest of the organisation,
—disproportionally approached w/ questions and requests for help,
—disproportionally trusted in critical situations.
The key word here is “disproportionally”.
And the bad thing about “disproportionally” is that it is unfair.
Unmatched geniuses are rare and when they do exist, they are usually compassionate. The English word for unmatched genius lacking compassion is “villain”.
Having a disproportionately developed crew member sends the worst possible signal to everybody else.
It is a form of organisational bullying, which can have far reaching effects on the organisation, on individual crew members, their professional and personal lives, and can affect even their partners and dependents.
When to act?
The presence of a Sacred Cow (or worse, when in plural) is one of the most alarming sights, when entering an organisation.
The course of action is based on two of the prime qualities of successful leaders: bravery and swiftness of decision.
Because w/ Sacred Cows one should deal decisively and immediately.
What to do?
The first thing to keep in mind is that the Sacred Cows are very similar to the Boggarts in the Harry Potter series—
—the danger they practically posses and the damage they can practically inflict is and will be, to a large extent, a projection of the picture you have in your mind.
So, before dealing w/ a Sacred Cow—perform the Riddikulus charm—imagine them (respectfully and in the privacy of your own mind) dressed like your grandmother.
Once you feel emotionally safe and in control of the situation—it’s time to act.
1. Go and talk. Explain the situation and why it is bad for the organisation. Explain the desired situation and propose that you talk about a roadmap to it.
1.1. If the Sacred Cow accepts, you have won—express your gratitude by thanking a deity of your choice, calling your mother, giving money to charity or whatever way is the usual for your species and make a plan to prevent this from happening again by treating all your crew members w/ equal respect and giving them equal chances, taking into account their individual situations.
Keep in mind, however, that the only way to recognise a sincere yes is a lifetime of deeds, and three days after their death (in German that would be “ewig und drei Tage”).
Special care need and deserve Sacred Cows, who have become such accidentally, subconsciously and unintentionally—i. e. as a result of poor leadership, which hasn’t recognised and captured the social dynamics leading to them becoming a Sacred Cow.
1.2. If the Sacred Cow turns into a Scarecrow—which is extremely tricky to recognise, because it can take any shape and form between an Angel of Light and a drooling sci-fi monster—then the best course of action is to part ways on the spot.
2.You do not replace a Sacred Cow w/ a Sacred Cow. Sacred Cows occupy roles w/ unclear shape. When you replace a Sacred Cow, you slice the role along the visible contours and delegate the parts to members of your existing crew.
2.1. Look for Hidden Treasures. It is more likely than not, that you have great people. And if you think you don’t, you haven’t been looking carefully. One of the most amazing people I have ever recruited could only skateboard, but was eager to try. My CEO at that time asked me why am I employing someone, who can only skateboard. She is now highly educated, a leader, a coach and a mother of two.
2.2. Trust your crew. One of the greatest motivators is responsibility. If you slice the role in bite sized chunks, easy to digest, your crew will manage them magnificently. Do not forget to redistribute their current responsibilities—not simply to pile the chunks on top. And do set a cast, as well as checks and balances—like a broken leg, the organisation will need time of stability to heal, but do not worry too much about the healing—like the broken leg, the organisation can do the healing w/ very little external help. Trust your crew.
How to prevent?
Once you have fixed the situation, you should take care that it does not happen again.
People become Sacred Cows through disproportional development, similarly to the chicks of the Common Cuckoo.
The most simple and straightforward way of keeping your organisation free of Sacred Cows is to treat your crew members equally—adjusted for their specific needs: so that they all grow strong. Be honest. Have clear and transparent rules. Do not have favourites. The Dutch egalitarianism is a good thing to look at and learn from.
This post was written from the point of view of a leader.
What to do if you have a Sacred Cow for a peer or a political adversary is another story.
Having a Sacred Cow for a leader might be beneficial, though it might be, under certain conditions, damning by association.
Have a question or need help?
I answer questions gladly and provide, occasionally, a 1920s style Sam Mussabini mentoring pro bono. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.