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As a Leader, Do You Give Credit or Pass the Blame?

We've been watching Sam Altman's Startup Class lately, and there was one nugget of wisdom that stuck out to us (and we're paraphrasing here):

When working with employees or teams (or clients), be sure to give them all the credit when things go right, and as the founder, be sure to take all the blame when things go wrong.

To bring this statement to life, consider two horse trainers on the showjumping circuit:

The first, a man we'll call Tate, has been riding horses since he was a child, but has always felt that he was at a disadvantage due to his social class. He gets a job working for the coach of the Olympic Team, but he's never asked to actually join the team, despite aspiring to make the cut. After leaving with a bruised ego, he bounces around for a few years, struggling to make it as an equestrian.

Eventually, a wealthy couple offers him his first big break. They want to pay him $40,000 a year to live at their state-of-the-art (and brand new) equestrian center as head trainer. They also want him to ride their two Grand Prix horses (worth roughly $1 million combined). In addition, as head trainer, he's expected to train their two children to ride horses and also compete on the circuit - along with other students from the area, who'll pay $40/hr for the privilege. He gets to keep a portion.

As part of this agreement, Tate never has to pay for show fees (which can be in the thousands of dollars). The owners also provide him with a truck, horse trailer, grooming staff, the best equipment, and everything he needs to succeed. He even lives in a furnished two-bedroom apartment above the main barn, where his girlfriend gets to live as well. They hire her as the barn manager, bringing their combined income to $75,000 a year with few expenses.

All the owners ask is that Tate train their horses, help their children learn how to ride, and increase the value of their Grand Prix horses by placing regularly in the ribbons (preferably first through fifth place) at horse shows around the country. Tate gets all the glory, without the financial troubles that many other equestrians face, while the owners get to enjoy the fun of watching their children compete and rooting for their horses at the all-important Grand Prix each Sunday.

Things start out great. The horses are performing well, the barn is gaining a strong reputation for quality horsemanship, and the couple's children are enjoying the show jumping circuit. Yet, Tate feels "owned," and he resents it. Slowly, he begins to feel that he is losing control of his life, and that nothing belongs to him, not even the horses he rides. He becomes self-destructive, angry, impulsive. His girlfriend fears that he's spending too much of his free time at the truck stop's "casino," pouring money into the slot machines while he chain smokes cigarettes.

Over time, the situation begins to unravel, and Tate cannot bring himself to accept the blame for his actions. Even worse, he beings to believe that he's simply not good enough - that he will never be a famous rider, especially as the expensive show horses begin to act up. First, they start knocking down easy rails on course, then they start refusing fences altogether. The younger Grand Prix horse starts causing trouble outside the gate. As the pressure begins to build, Tate starts wearing harsher spurs, puts stronger bits in the horses' mouths, and increasingly relies on his whip with each ride. As the horses lose event after event, they begin to plummet in value, get injured, and become more and more difficult to ride.

The owners are concerned that Tate is the problem; yet every time he loses an event (with entry fees in the hundreds of dollars), he assures them that the problems lie with the horses and not his treatment of them. Moreover, he refuses to let anyone else ride them. Then, one day, outside of the schooling ring, the owners overhear another competitor saying of Tate, "It's a shame how he treats those horses. They were promising once." As they look up to see Tate's heavy use of the whip, they begin to realize that there is a problem.

Another trainer, who we'll call Kathy, also started out in the lower classes of society, but never took it personally that others had more money than she did. She rode horses because she loved it, and she was good at it - unlike school, where she struggled with a learning disability. (Horses she understood; algebra, not so much.) Of course, Kathy never got to train with someone as revered as the Olympic Team's coach, but she worked very hard to teach herself through books, DVDs, manuals, and the random workshops held by respected trainers as they passed through her state.

Around the same time Tate was getting his big break, Kathy was opening up her own "equestrian facility" in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't much, just a seven-stall cinder block barn with an open field and a couple of jumps; but she was able to start training students and make around $35/hr for each lesson (she funneled most of it back into her business). Kathy kept expenses down, choosing to live in a small cottage near the barn. Eventually, she bought a cheap horse with lots of potential and focused on making that one horse - who could have just as easily gone to slaughter if not for her - into a show jumping star. When she did, and started winning every event on the show circuit, people began to take notice.

Instead of being owned by others, Kathy chose to be an independent agent. She still rode horses owned by wealthy individuals, same as Tate, but instead of being regarded as an employee, Kathy was revered as the expert. And when things would go wrong in the show ring, Kathy never took it out on the horses. She knew it was her job to train them for other riders and increase their value, so instead of passing the blame or getting angry, Kathy would explain the silver lining of each mistake to the owners.

"Yes, I didn't get the distance quite right at that orange oxer, and that was my bad, but your horse recovered very well and you should be really proud of him. We may have knocked down that rail at the blue vertical, but now, if someone else were to ride him and make that same mistake, your horse will know how to handle it. Let's put him in the class tomorrow and see how he goes round. Hopefully, after a few more events, he'll be ready for your daughter to ride. Remember: we're playing the long game - it's not about one class, or one Grand Prix, it's about getting your horse ready for her, and we did that today."

Kathy is more interested in learning and teaching; whereas Tate lost his way by being more concerned with ego and ambition. Kathy never blames the horses when things go wrong, but is always quick to reward them for a job well done. Tate, on the other hand, expects the horse to make him look good, and when that fails to happen, he blames the horse, rather than himself.

When considering how to manage a team, or even work on a project with a client, ask yourself - are you a Tate or a Kathy? Are you willing to give your team all the credit for the good, or are you more concerned with making yourself look good? Are you approaching your relationship with a client as being "owned" and controlled, or as offering your professional services? And finally, are you the type of leader who leads by taking the reins, or by threatening with the whip?

Tate was eventually fired by the barn's owners, and he failed to ever obtain the glory he was after. Kathy, on the other hand, is still working on her craft and is respected in equestrian circles.

So what's the lesson here? Things are always going to go wrong, but it's how you treat those following your strategy that determines what kind of leader you actually are.