A TV pundit recently referred to a well-known political figure as the “bell cow” of the group he leads. That left me wondering: How many of you know what a “bell cow” is?
All small family farms had a small herd of milk cows. These animals were provided a pasture where they could roam and graze during the day. This space was always limited to the portion of the farm that was not suited to cultivation, such as badly eroded land or bottom land that was too wet to plow. Today these marshes are called “wet lands” but then we just called them swamps. The cows were free to graze on anything they could find, and to drink from the small streams that usually passed through such areas.
One cow, usually the oldest, would assume the role of leader. Wherever she went, the others would tag along. Once she was identified, the farmer would hang a cow bell around her neck that would ring from time to time as she moved about, lowered her head to graze, or would use her tail to switch off pesky flies. She was, of course, called “the bell cow.” The cows spent the night in their individual stalls in the barn. Early each morning, some member of the family would milk the cows and give them hay. The doors to the stalls were left open. After the cows ate their morning breakfast they were free to wonder off into the pasture for the day.
Then late in the afternoon, someone, often a visiting grandson, would be sent down into the pasture to drive the cows back to the barn to be milked, fed and stabled for the evening. Because the pasture was often partly filled with brush, marshes and gullies, the cows were not always visible. That is where the bell came in. By following the sound of the bell, it was easy to locate the bell cow. The rest of the herd was always nearby.
For someone to be described as the bell cow of their organization is quite an insult to the other members. It implies that they are mindless followers of the leader, and that he or she can take the group anywhere he or she chooses without objection.
Members of a bell cow-led group are viewed as having little or no individual motivation. They just go along with the leader, regardless of his or her qualifications. None of them are supposed credited with any independent judgment. Leadership of such a group is easy. With no one challenging your authority or motivation, you can take the group anywhere you please. It is much harder to be a leader among a group of people who think for themselves. A group of that type will have many ideas and consider many directions of movement. Trying to be a leader in such a group fits another stereotype of leadership called “herding cats.”
Bell cows lead their people along predictable paths. Cat herders are more likely to be pulled into new and often creative directions. I think we need more cat herders and fewer bell cows.
Frank Gillispie is founder of The Madison County Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His website can be accessed at http://www.frankgillispie.com/gillispieonline.