Skip to main content

Sacred Cows

By May 12, 2016February 14th, 2019Articles, Leadership

Sacred cowSacred Cow– noun ~ an idea, custom, or institution held to be above criticism (with reference to the Hindus’ respect for the cow as a holy animal).

How many sacred cows do you have? These might be team members, ideas, processes, goals, business rituals or even friends? Most of us have one or two. Some of us have signs that warn others about the sacred cows. But try as we might, these cows can be rather difficult to get rid of!

I need to put my hand up and admit that I had no idea what this term meant until about 5 years ago. Someone I knew used to say it all the time and I would nod and agree or more likely looked rather confused! He used to use the term when describing people often saying “there’s too many sacred cows in this organisation. Another ‘sacred cow’ gets away with something that most wouldn’t. I really should’ve put two and two together but I think the sacred bit got me confused. I’m thinking that’s a positive – being sacred! The cow bit; well I won’t go into what I thought that referenced!

I was working with an organisation that had a couple of sacred cows. These were people and rituals. Compromise was made, poor behaviour was accepted and sub standard performance tolerated. This is in stark contrast to the standards that the remaining 90% of the team were expected to live up to. The leaders had their reasons for protecting the ‘sacred cows’ however, what they weren’t understanding is it was infecting their culture, damaged their results and negatively impacted on how they were perceived and their leadership brand. And to be honest, these ‘sacred cows’ weren’t worth that.

What’s interesting was they were still trying to do what they historically did say ten years ago in a world that has evolved, in a business that had grown and included a majority of new team members. And as we know people are smarter now and less tolerant. Our teams notice so much more than what we often truly give them credit for. Don’t think for a minute they don’t know who your sacred cows are.

So why did they continue? Is it a case of leader knows best? Were they simply oblivious to what they are doing? Was it just too hard to think about changing things?

You will have heard of the story of the five monkeys. If you haven’t you can watch the You Tube here. It’s a powerful story of how paradigms are created (for the record I do not support monkeys or any other animal being placed in cages in any way shape or form.) This little story is relevant to our sacred cows issue also. Having the mindset of ‘this is how things are around here’ is no longer going to serve you. Rituals, ideas, people management, leadership strategies and paradigms all need a good shaking up and this needs to continue on a consistent basis. You will risk getting lost in irrelevance if you play this game with any of the chess pieces you have at your disposal.

Sacred Cows are not for business. You can’t afford them anymore. The only things that should be considered sacred cows in business should be your values and business ethics. Everything else should be assessed and considered for sacrifice if it no longer serves your business or leadership or is in line with your values. This may sound harsh however, the more you tolerate, the more you protect what you know is wrong the more you will risk becoming extinct and being swallowed up by those who are willing to sacrifice to ensure they are moving forward with a herd of equally empowered cows behind them.