The phrase herding cats comes from a tv ad for an IT company and if few people know that, even fewer know that the term was lifted from a rather obscure management self-help book.
Herding cats is now a ubiquitous phrase that has come into management-speak to describe tasks that are tricky because things are changing and uncontrollable. Its recent popularity can be traced back to just a decade ago, during the peak of the dot com boom. It was used as the theme for an award winning commercial by ad agency Fallon for information management leaders EDS (now subsumed into HP), aired during the centre break of the annual Super Bowl baseball game.
Amongst the most expensive advertising slots in the world, this event regularly attracts an inordinate amount of effort from ad agencies and their clients. Little known outside the US and ad agency circles, viewers across the Atlantic will often find more entertainment during this ad break than the baseball game itself.
Although the tipping point for the phrase’s popularity was this IT services ad, its real origin was an obscure human resources reference book published a few years before, at the end of 1997. Warren Bennis‘s Managing People is Like Herding Cats is a book about leadership in management. Bennis was a pioneer of Leadership Studies in business and according to management guru Tom Peters:
“His work at MIT in the 1960s on group behavior foreshadowed, and helped bring about, today’s headlong plunge into less hierarchical, more democratic and adaptive institutions, private and public.”
The Financial Times named his classic book Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge one of the top 50 books of all time. He believes there are six key qualities in becoming a successful leader:
And maybe the ability to herd cats.
And where did Bennis get the phrase from? A very likely candidate is science fiction writer, Poul Anderson. His post apocalyptic novel Orion Shall Rise dates from 1983.