Reflections on leadership: Be like a cowboy

Having "the try" means you maintain grit, say yes and are constantly learning

I was asked to tell my career story at a leadership lunch last month. Honored, I spent time examining my professional path, lessons learned and what meaningful words I could impart.

As I began my journey of reflection, I recalled a book I read some five years ago titled: “The Try, Reclaiming the American Dream,” by James P. Owen, author of “Cowboy Ethics.”  Raised as a city girl, I now call Colorado my home. When I curled up with that book, it was for exposure to an existence I knew nothing about: The life and times of a cowboy.

On the third page I read the following passage:

“In standard English usage, try is a verb that means ‘to make an attempt.’ But in cowboy culture, the word is a noun invested with profound meaning. When cowboys say, ‘That cowhand, he’s got Try,’ they’re talking about the quality of giving something every ounce of effort you can muster.  And if a cowboy really, really admires someone, he’ll say that person’s got The Try – which means he or she is someone who always gives 110 percent and never, ever quits.”

While reading that passage time froze because on that page I saw the defining words. The city girl from San Francisco has got “the try – a characteristic of a cowhand. Sharing the power of “the try became the primary message I chose to convey in my presentation with the hope that it would inspire the audience members. 

A few maxims of “the try,” as interpreted through the lens of my life:


Opportunities will present themselves, and while careful evaluation is necessary, don’t say no, when you can say yes. Too many people say they need another degree or another year until they are ready to achieve success. Jump, leap, dive in – you can take that class or get that degree along the way. The year you delay will rarely make you any more ready. 


In the mid-1990s, an American lifestyle company became hugely popular. Its slogan was: NO FEAR.  While this exclamation touted the virtues required for extreme sports, many non-extreme people wore the clothing because, truth be told, we universally seek to shed our fears. We imagine standing on the apex of the fourteener. But when it comes to accepting a job on the opposite coast, agreeing to stand in front of an audience or asking for a promotion, it is much too easy to be gripped by fear and never climb.


Lexi Alexander, an Oscar-nominated film director profiled in “the try,” said the day she decided to move her seat from first class to coach is when she began to collect stories that she could tell in her films.  Scrunched between two normal people is where you really learn, gather colorful commentary and inspiration to give everything you’ve got to an idea, dream or job. Sure, Alexander failed, but having “the try” – never giving up – and finding a source of energy in the stories of others fueled her dream. She emerged from the competition by sheer will.


I have never liked the word perfect. I’m uncertain perfection exists. But I do admire and respect anyone who gives 110 percent. A phrase I have used privately for most of my adult life goes a little something like this: “The Kathy I would like, admire and respect, would accept that job on the east coast, even though life is currently a slice of heaven here in California.” So what sounds more possible to you­­ –Showing your “try” may be your best to push through and past your fears.


Much has been written about ‘grit’ the last few years. Everyone from Angela Duckworth, a MacArthur Award winner and author who developed the Grit Scale (to identify who was most likely to graduate from West Point), to research that identifies the quality of grit as the highest and most consistent predictor of individual success. Grit is even cultivated in grade schools these days, praising students for their effort and willingness to stick to it, as well as their academic achievements.

Early in my skydiving days I had a bad landing that shattered my confidence. I also thought I might be injured, but was able to get up and walk back to the drop zone. I knew in that walk that if I did not jump again that day, I would never jump again ­– fear would set in and I would be immobilized. So I went straight to the manifest, got on the next flight, jumped and landed successfully. I then drove myself to the emergency room where x-rays revealed that more than my confidence had been shattered. This was a classic case of getting back on the horse after being ejected. Perhaps if a cowhand had been around, I would have been told I had “the try.”

No matter where you are on your career path, be diligent – all you have to do is try.

Categories: Management & Leadership