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The Executive Whisperer

6 feet 4 inches. 230 pounds. Navy veteran. Not the crying type. But Dave Makowicz sniffs and wipes his cheek. “This is one of the most important things I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says.

Makowicz is Chief Operations Officer for investment firm Clarion Securities. He and his colleagues have just observed horseman Grant Golliher of the Diamond Cross Ranch use the horse-breaking process to teach management and leadership. Inside the round pen stands a panting, sweating three year-old colt, the kind of spoiled pen-raised horse used to getting its own way. Until an hour ago.

Clarion is one of approximately thirty-five corporations each year that sends its employees to Jackson to learn from Golliher, the cowboy oracle. Organizations like Toyota, IBM, Del Monte, Lexus, General Electric, Allstate, and the Federal Reserve are flocking to the Diamond Cross Ranch. Golliher may be the only horseman in America who makes most of his living demonstrating leadership skills to corporate employees.

Earlier he had released the colt into the round pen. It raised its head, pointed its inside ear toward Golliher, its eyes wide and gaze locked. Its cooperativeness, however, was shallow in the manner of a manipulative teenager. It moved as far from Golliher as it could.

When Golliher lifted the first saddle onto the colt’s back and cinched it down, the horse didn’t seem bothered. CEO T. Ritson Ferguson suspected the colt had been ridden before; the demonstration was a setup. Come on, who could start an unbroken horse in one hour?

Accustomed to skepticism, Golliher pulled the cinch tight and waved the colt away. It felt the cinch and then broke in two, snorting and bucking around the round pen and smashing into the metal panels, shoving them nearly to the knees of the spectators in the front row and nearly flipping into the audience. Clarion employees leaned back in their seats as if it was possible to dodge a thousand pound explosion of hide and hoof, and the colt landed back in the pen, bolting and bucking. Ferguson’s skepticism had vanished.

Months later Clarion employees would reflect on this scene and discuss how they might apply these lessons. They did not yet know that this demonstration would provide a framework for discussing and solving specific management problems. At the moment they waited balled up and gap-jawed for the moment when Golliher would ride. Surely the colt would buck him off.

Golliher did not lose his temper or blame the inexperienced horse but maintained a quiet and confident energy. “Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy,” he said, and everyone—especially Dave Makowicz—knew he was not talking only about horses. Instead of a horse in the pen, Makowicz saw his son Nate, an autistic young man who often throws tantrums to expresses fear or frustration. Watching Golliher work with the colt was like watching him work with Nate, and the lessons came easily: Base the relationship on trust. Don’t get rattled. Allow a person to be himself, but establish clear boundaries. This moment of transference when spectators gaze into the pen and see not a horse, but, for instance, an employee, a boss, a spouse, or a child is when the entertainment gives way to an emotional aha.

The colt faced Golliher, giving him its full attention, and Golliher stroked it on the neck. “There you go. Good boy.” Then he turned to the people and issued one of many signature pronouncements: “If they trust you they’ll be loyal and follow you.” Ferguson marveled at how quickly Golliher had won the colt’s faith. “Good leaders develop trust. You have nothing without respect,” Golliher said. The lesson couldn’t have been clearer if he had presented a traditional leadership seminar at Clarion’s corporate office. People are attracted to humility, not to a leader who is arrogant and prideful. Loyalty is the goal—people who want to be a part of the company family. Respect must be earned; it cannot be demanded. And there it was, one moment of many to which Clarion’s leaders could refer later.

They soaked up the meaning but not for long. Golliher was about to mount up. He lifted foot to stirrup, eased a leg over, and settled onto the colt’s back. It tensed up and stepped around tenuously, assessing the predator on its back and trying to decide how to react. Let the rodeo begin! On the brink of a meltdown and overcome with fright, the colt tucked its hindquarters, scooted off—and the people gasped. The colt looked back at Golliher as if asking “Am I okay? Am I okay?” Most other cowboys would have grabbed leather, gritted their teeth, and held tight, but Golliher remained calm and loose and reached out to rub the colt’s neck. “You good? You done? You gonna be alright?” He rubbed some more until the horse relaxed. “There you go, good boy. That’s a good first step.” Though still anxious and uptight, the horse lowered its head and carried its rider around the pen because if Golliher believed the colt was okay, it would, too. Golliher grinned. Ah, the power of positive expectations. The horse gradually ceded itself to the rules of the world of work. “I’m as tough as I have to be, as soft as I can be,” Golliher said.

The audience, however, did not completely relax. Convinced that the colt would buck, the people sat crimped and waiting, but the horse relaxed its shoulders and neck and carried Golliher around the pen. He knew that humans sometimes hang on to beliefs even after seeing evidence to the contrary, so he smiled, stroked the colt, and asked, “If we don’t trust them, how do we expect them to trust us?”

After the demo, Makowicz stands at the fence taking in the colt and trying to put words to his thoughts. The horse looks like an employee who has survived the first day on a difficult job. Exhausted, it seems mostly relieved and maybe a bit surprised that it has survived. In fact, it has done better than that; it has worked through its fear and inexperience without losing control.

Like other corporate businesspersons who have attended Golliher’s programs, Makowicz might relate the demonstration to increased net profit or improved relationships with employees, suppliers, or clients. But he can’t stop thinking about Nate. His emotions surprise and embarrass him. At first he has a hard time stringing together the right words. “I’m a controlling parent sometimes and maybe I need to let go of the reins and just back off a bit. Let them be what they need to be…and be there to love them when they’re done.” He is talking about parenting, but the application to corporate leadership is clear. Smile lines stretch out from the corners of his eyes. “I see there is a better way,” he says.

Lathered and breathing deeply, the colt watches Golliher walk away toward the gate—and follows him.


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