Working Wider

Leadership Style:
The Horses, Muffins and Birds Assessment

birdmuffinIt’s springtime here in California.  Winter’s downpours are now misty showers pushed aside by the sun.  The pollen count is high as the early daffodils give way to other blooms.  The birds and bees are getting back to work.

Spring triggered a distant but vivid memory.  It was springtime some thirty years ago when I left academia to join Exxon Chemicals.  For me, it was time to translate theory into practice.  Of my many recollections of Exxon, there are two I recall in 3D with Dolby surround sound.

The first was my introduction to corporate BS.  In an important decision meeting, an executive vice-president said to the senior vice-president, “I didn’t quite follow what you said but let me build on it.”  Whaaa?

Horses, Muffins & Birds

But the most useful moment occurred later that month when my boss’s boss, explained his typology for categorizing people and their contribution.  It was his personal Myers-Briggs leadership style assessment.

Now bear with me.  This is one of those typologies that has zero, zip, nada validation.  It’s absurdly simply and therefore forces you to put people into impossibly tight boxes.  Yet, there’s something to it that works just because it forces you to choose.  It’s a fun and quick quiz that I use to test my sensing of people and companies.  I rarely share the assessment and usually just smile inside. I’ll describe the basics and then share a few lessons I’ve learned using it.  Here goes….

There are three types of people/companies in the world.


Horses do the bulk of the work.  They pull heavy loads.  They are dependable and easy to control.  Muffins just sit there.  They do things but at a muffin pace and in a muffin way which is the minimum possible.  Birds fly free.  Birds are hard to control.  Birds take you to new places: good or bad, with your blessing and without.

That’s it — Horses, muffins and birds.  Each changes over time.  As birds age, they end up in a cage, chirping small insights as folks walk past.  Some birds fly away.  Rarely do birds become horses.  As horses’ age, they become muffins. Muffins are relatively inert; if they change at all.  Under crisis, some muffins act like stubborn mules.

Now think about the teams and networks you work within.  As I detail the distinctions between horses, muffins and birds, think about your world.  Who are your horses, muffins and birds?


First of all, without any horses, nothing’s going to get done.  Horses are essential.  These are the non-commissioned soldiers; stronger and smarter than worker bees.  Some are Clydesdales that pull 3x what others can.  You might have a few highly spirited thoroughbreds: lightning fast and temperamental.  You’ve probably seen very quick cutting horses that can shift direction quickly to counter any objection or obstacle faced.  You want a variety of horse breeds but most importantly, you want plenty of horses.

Horses make sensible decisions. Most stay with the herd and pull in the direction they’re headed.  Jim Collin’s books, Built to Last and Good to Great extoll the importance of horses.  Horses drive productivity.  Collins shows readers how to get the maximum horsepower out of their organization engines.


Birds delight, catch our attention and crap on our cars.  They’re free, fast and forever uncontrollable.  Often brightly colored and expressive, they cause others to turn their heads.  They also smash into things sometimes killing themselves or leaving debris in their wake.

Birds are essential but you don’t want or need too many.  A few spice things up and too many create chaos.  They are full of ideas but without horses, the odds against execution are high.  Everyone has a bit of the bird in them but only true birds defy organization gravity and authority consistently.

Some birds are predators, swooping down on prey inside and out of the firm.  Others stay in small bunches like flocks of sparrows, creating things that are cool but defy scaling.  Some birds fly from place to place like bees, carrying information, ideas and energy.  If you need to find stories about birds, pick up any issue of Fast Company or Wired.


Muffins are nothing if not steadfast, often loyal and even loveable.  Muffins can form a solid wall of defense to prevent intrusion or change.  Muffins know and apply every rule and procedure. The more rules you have, the more likely you’ll have muffins.  If you’ve never experienced a muffin, go to the DMV.

Muffins are baked; not bought. There aren’t any muffin job descriptions and people don’t try to hire muffins.  We bake muffins in our corporate culture ovens where they absorb every criticism, corrective policy or injunction.  Muffins know best what not to do.  In Japan, muffins would be so-called window sitters – retired in place employees.

Muffins are generally sweet, sometimes quirky and usually without bad intentions.  It’s just that they have few intentions beyond what’s obviously safe.  Muffins are objects at rest who minimize moments that overcome inertia or put themselves at risk.  In the worst case, muffins are those that ought to have been fired long ago but for whatever reason, real or imaginary, no one does.  Managers frequently put icing on their muffins in hopes that others will take them off their plate.

The Lessons of Horses, Muffins and Birds

  1. When you need birds, don’t get a flock – one or two will do fine
  2. Birds can inspire but don’t manage well – Put them on a horse
  3. Horses need to pull something to stay fit and engaged
  4. Horses need to be reminded which way and when to pull
  5. You’ll always have muffins but remove the stale goods from your shelves.
  6. Deal with but don’t disrespect muffins – they are sweet and loveable so others will care
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