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Boss: Management Tips for Today from a Nineteenth Century Cattle Drive

Author(s):Frazier, Tim
Frazier, Dana
Reviewer(s):Stanger, Howard R.

Published by EH.NET (June 2007)

Tim Frazier and Dana Frazier, Boss: Management Tips for Today from a Nineteenth Century Cattle Drive. Abilene: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2006. 112 pp. $13 (paperback), ISBN: 1-933337-10-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Howard R. Stanger, Department of Management and Marketing, Canisius College.

Some time in the 1880s, a successful cattle rancher from West Texas named Oscar Thompson wrote a letter “full of practical advice and fatherly wisdom” (p. 13) to his son who was soon to embark on his first drive as a trail boss. Trail bosses were responsible for driving a few thousand head of cattle to market, an arduous and risky venture that could take months to accomplish. From Thompson’s letter emerged “21 Simple Rules to Make Your Business Grow and Keep Your People Happy.” The authors of Boss, Tim and Dana Frazier, who own a management consulting firm, argue that a “few simple rules that helped a cow crew succeed in the nineteenth century can help a corporate boss succeed along the demanding terrain of twenty-first century corporate America” (p. 15). There is some good homespun advice in this book, but business school deans need not worry about the irrelevancy of the MBA.

After moving my cheese and reading this slim and lively book, I was both pleasantly surprised and slightly disappointed. First, some of Thompson’s more sagacious words of wisdom (the complete list of rules can be found on pages 17 and 107): A few key organizational guidelines include: “When you camp at night, always point your wagon tongue toward the North Star” (understand and stay focused on the organization’s mission); “Be ready to go at all times” (make a plan but be flexible); “Don’t leave your herd for anything” (understand the business and focus on core competencies ? sorry for the management speak); “Water your cattle and fill them up before night” (effective communications keeps things running smoothly); “Look after the comfort of your men, and they will follow you to hell” (create a culture of respect, support, and integrity); and “Keep your mind on your business and make your head save your heels” (rely on experience and common sense and trust team members).

Much of the trail boss’s job was devoted to managing his crew of cowboys, each with specific duties. Some of Thompson’s advice on managing people is timeless, but some hark back to more traditional employee-management approaches: “First of all, obey orders from your boss. He is paying you for your service” (yes, sir); “Never say ‘no’ to your employer” (accept the boss’s authority, but be willing to offer alternatives and suggestions after earning the right to do so); ” Don’t say ‘You boys do this,’ but ‘Come on, boys, follow me” (lead by example); “Explain to your cook that he must be ready with meals at all times” (take care of the team and treat them individually with respect); “When you graze your herd, explain to your men that they must graze toward the shipping pens or camp” (do not waste time on unproductive tasks); “Keep your harness and camp equipment clean and up out of the sand” (remove irritants that drag down productivity); “Don’t fight your men unless they jump you; but if one of them, or anyone else, jumps you, give them the best you have” (manage conflict but do not create it; stay in control at all times); and “Don’t drink while on duty, and don’t allow any gambling in camp” (do not be foolish with company resources).

Each rule is presented in a single chapter that contains two opening quotes, one from a nineteenth-century cowboy and one from a current businessperson. Chapters progress in a fairly formulaic manner with the authors elaborating on each rule and weaving in “real” examples (there are no citations) from their professional experiences. The Fraziers’ advice can best be described as commonsensical, intuitive, and practical. Managers who will enjoy advice books will chow down on Boss sampling of these tender morsels.

But business historians might be somewhat disappointed. The first petty academic grievance is that the quotes from cowboys include the name, location, and year, but not the source (presumably they derive from exhibits inside the museum, Frontier Texas, outside which Oscar Thompson’s advice has been preserved in stone). Second, there is no historic context provided to understand better the economic, social, and cultural lives of cowboys and cattle driving. We learn that a trail boss could earn a hundred dollars a month (current dollars), a cook sixty dollars, and wranglers thirty dollars, but not about who these men were, what (e.g., high pay, opportunity, restlessness) induced them to take these risky jobs, and the economics of cattle ranching. Readers will be more tolerant of these shortcomings if they accept the authors’ objective of distilling lessons for practicing managers. Historians ? and others ? will likely appreciate the illustrations from Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper scattered throughout the book. Taken on its own terms, Boss is an engaging book that fits into the genre of management advice books sold in general and airport bookstores. Happy trails.

Howard R. Stanger is Associate Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He has recently authored articles on the Larkin Company’s corporate culture, welfare capitalism, and club-based marketing practices covering the period 1875-1941.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century