The coyote coach
Coyotes are the most successful predator in the North American continent. (Courtesy of Terry Pettit)
An occasional column about leadership.
We live on a bluff above an oxbow in Fossil Creek, looking west toward Long’s Peak, the Indian Peaks and the rest of the Front Range. On the far side of the creek, native grasses and thickets served as a home to prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, bald eagles, hawks, voles and coyotes.
Until recently, I had not seen but only heard the coyotes when they returned from hunting late at night. They yipped and howled almost every night, throughout the night, their barks as crisp and sharp as if they were only a few yards away. The couple next door, a pilot and a physician, were so concerned they reinforced the locks on their newborn’s windows.
One morning I discovered the coyotes were less than a football field away. Their den is in a bramble of plum bushes just above the creek, and my wife, Anne, spotted them as they returned in the early morning after their hunt. They are hard to see, even when you know where they are, because their fur is the same color and texture as the prairie grasses that they move through.
The best way to describe how they move is to make “alert” an active verb. They are constantly in the now, taking in information about their changing environment with every flare of the nostrils, with every paw that they lift to the prairie, with every shadow or particle of light that is different from their last breath.
These are not the emaciated coyotes as depicted by Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. They do not so much slink as consider their options. You would lose a lot of money betting on roadrunners, mice, rabbits or cats out for a short walk. Coyotes own a much healthier vigorish than the bookies in Vegas. They are the most successful predator in the North American continent. There are significantly more coyotes today then there were a century ago, something that is not true for bears, mountain lions, wolverines, owls and wolves.
They are bigger, faster, smarter and healthier than they were a century ago. Despite organized attempts by wildlife officials and spontaneous Saturday morning hunts with dogs, noisemakers and shotguns, they continue to thrive and expand their homeland exponentially. They can survive on voles or Twinkies, garbage and ribeyes. They can scavenge or hunt. They can hunt alone or in groups. They can communicate if food is contaminated, and they don’t make the same mistake twice.
This last observation is why I admire them so much. While humans tend to notice similarities in their environment, coyotes focus on the differences. If a rock is in a path that wasn’t there yesterday, they choose a different path. If a shadow appears above a ridge that wasn’t there before, their amygdales are on notice. Every decision is a survival decision. They do not let sentimentality, habits or last year’s way of doing things get in the way. A coyote’s point of view is something that an experienced leader could benefit from.
We all know successful people who have a blind spot created by their own success. Sometimes their training has not kept up with technical changes. Sometimes they rely have relied so much on a particular talent (say work ethic) that they do not realize they have not developed a skill in another other area, such as collaborative leadership.
Coyotes do not make this mistake. They cannot afford to because they would not be alive the next day to make another one. But leaders in established businesses or organizations can fail to see the impact of habits that are no longer successful, because talent can delay the impact of neurotic behavior.
The best way for leaders to become like coyotes is for them to have a mentor or a peer group that they relate to frequently who cares about their development but who has been invited to share his or her honest observations. This can be a former coach, a counselor, a spouse or another person from a different occupation. The only requirement is the ability to see some of the issues in your blind spot.
Great presidents have had mentors, as well as generals, poets and NASCAR drivers. To reach our full potential, we need a coyote coach who is willing to tell us the truth about the rock in the path or the shadows that loom above the ridge. It may be time to call one up out of the plum bushes.
This essay is adapted from Terry Pettit’s book, “Talent and the Secret Life of Teams.”
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