Fainting Goats

"Do what you feel in your heart to be right--for you'll be criticized anyway."
Eleanor Roosevelt

     Goats are interesting creatures.  But those afflicted with myotonia congenital are especially fascinating.

     I suspect you are likely unfamiliar with the medical term, but you may well have seen the videos. The so-called “fainting goats” are an internet sensation. When frightened or startled, these goats don’t run away.  They simply seize up and fall over. It’s a genetic condition that is generally harmless to goats living in captivity and humorous for their owners. But it’s conversely a potentially lethal malady for goats living among predators.

     Folklore traces the origin of the fainting goat to the 1880's in Marshall County, Tennessee. It’s believed that a man by the name of Tinsley came to town bringing along a few “special” goats and a single "sacred" cow. As the story goes he stayed around long enough to marry a local woman, and to help a farmer with the harvest. But eventually he sold his goats to a man by the name of R. Goode and then departed the community. It’s believed he took the cow with him but left his poor wife behind.

     What made these Tinsley goats so “special” is that they were very effective at protecting livestock. You see, it turns out these particular goats had a habit of literally freezing in place or falling over when a herd of coyotes, wild dogs or other predators threatened the sheep.  Conveniently, this allowed the sheep to run away unharmed as the now paralyzed goat provided the predator with an easy meal.

     Now you’re probably wondering what this funny phenomenon (unless you’re the goat, of course) has to do with leadership.  So here’s my point. I find it serves as a powerful metaphor for one of the biggest personal leadership traps of all. That is, allowing ourselves to become frozen in place by indecision.

     Please indulge me for a minute. How often have you experienced a leader who, the minute they face an issue that is challenging, unsettling or just plain uncomfortable, simply locks up? In other words, they faint in the face of hardship, difficulty, or controversy. Instead of accepting responsibility for dealing with the situation at hand head–on, they go the way of the fainting goat and freeze. Unsure or unwilling to do anything to get or keep things moving, they opt to do nothing--bringing progress to a literal standstill.

     Now ask yourself this question. How many times do you find yourself unwittingly acting like a fainting goat? Are you prone to avoiding making decisions? Are your actions, or lack thereof, keeping you from achieving your goals or accomplishing your objectives? Is fear keeping you from being the leader you want to be and others deserve to see?

     If you answered yes to any of these questions, here’s some good news. It’s not too late to turn things around.   

     In practical terms, we fall prey to the fainting goat phenomenon for a host of reasons. We allow ourselves to get overly fixated on a certain worrisome concern and cannot let it go. Or we convince ourselves to dwell on risks and imagine the worst, allowing our fear of making a poor choice convince us to not act at all.  Regardless of the reason why we act like a fainting goat, what’s important to recognize is we don’t have to stay trapped in this vicious cycle of worry, anxiety and unfounded fear.  

     So what can we do about it? Try starting here: 

  1. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect. Analysis paralysis keeps us playing small. Because it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting everything to be perfect, or trying to avoid criticism, it is easy to encode ourselves with all the reasons why we should defer making a decision. Don’t do it. Decide today to make informed action your ally and perfection your enemy. And watch your leadership effectiveness increase and your sense of accomplishment soar.
  2. Risk being wrong.  Decisiveness means taking the risk that we may be wrong, while keeping in mind that perfect clarity is rarely a reality. So recalibrate how you look at risk. Recognize it for what it is: the price of admission for doing your best to move things in a better direction. So the next time you find yourself facing a tough decision, gather the facts, seek appropriate advice, and don’t be afraid to take the leap. 
  3. Know you can’t please everyone. This is one of the hardest obstacles to overcome as a leader. After all, it’s natural to want to be liked by those around you. The challenge that arises, however, is you can quickly find yourself trapped in a cycle of indecision if you try to please or pacify everyone. That’s why the sooner you recognize it’s impossible to keep everyone happy the better. Leading effectively demands you make some unpopular decisions. So stand your ground, remain respectful, but don’t abdicate responsibility for acting when it’s clearly your place to do so. Others are counting on you to do the right thing.

Reaching your full positive potential as a leader isn’t easy. And it’s made all the more daunting when you are thrust into positions requiring you to venture outside your comfort zone. But let me be clear. Decisiveness is the key to achieving results, especially in the face of complexity or uncertainty. Weigh the information available and then use your best judgment to choose among the possibilities, recognizing that by your willingness to make a decision you’re fulfilling your fundamental responsibilities as a leader. 

     Show the world you’re certainly not a fainting goat.


Fainting Goats - MediocreMe.com

John E. Michel is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. An accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster, he has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts and his award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website, www.MedicoreMe.com