There is some debate in academic circles whether the practice of cow tipping is a tall tale or a leisure activity brought about by the lack of alternatives in rural areas. No matter what, we certainly don't condone anyone tip over a cow while they are dozing off. Experts say cow tipping happens when a person sneaks up on an unsuspecting dozing cow and pushes it over on its side, resulting in great surprise on the part of the cow. Delving deeper into this cow conundrum, a Canadian zoologist did a study. He concluded that tipping an average sized cow would require 2,900 newtons of force or about what two people could generate (unless the cow wakes up and reacts). If the cow reacts, it would take 4 people to push it over. We wonder why Canadians are into pushing over cows for research, but we leave that to another day.
There a number of recent management books that avoids the topic of cow tipping altogether and focus instead on the theory of comparative advantage. This theory basically says the most efficient way to get things done is to focus on your strengths. For managers this generally translates into using your skill set, either primarily or exclusively, that has allowed you to progress through the ranks of your business life. Everyone likes to work in a comfort zone of competence, so this is also fairly natural.
Jake Breeden in his book Tipping Sacred Cows notes reliance upon strengths and habits that are widely seen as virtues can hide a less savory picture. He also finds the manager that seeks collaboration above all may be avoiding accountability and those that continually search for balance may cover an inability to make a decision. Finally, creativity may conceal narcissism that can undermine meeting a real business need.
To be sure, vices can masquerade as virtues. Overreliance by managers upon the skills that got them where they are can end up limiting further progress. The forceful manager can come off as a bully, decisiveness can turn into obstinacy or the nicest person in the office may seem simply indecisive.
Another outcome of overdependence on a favored skill set can be excellent execution of doing the wrong thing, rather than a softer execution with a better long term strategy. Example - the top managers of the big investment banks that blew up early in the 2008 financial crisis were primarily traders before they moved to senior management. They cultivated a culture of high risk behavior, the same environment that their own successful reputations were built upon, rather than take a longer-term view that would have served their companies better.
So what is the best way to utilize the strengths and efficiencies every manager brings, while keeping our feet grounded in reality? The best overall skill a manager can have is good judgment. Judgment keeps good managers from getting carried away by the weaknesses resident in their own personalities and helps them recognize the strength in others around them. Then when you need the team to generate enough newtons to push over a sleeping cow, they will happily pitch in. Disclaimer: no cows were harmed during this writing.