You may have heard the Texas slang, “big hat, no cattle” — referring to a person who makes him or herself look important, without the substance to back it up. The traditional (and often unfair) caricature of a CEO is very much “big hat, no cattle.” Even if you haven’t heard this phrase, you’ve probably met these characters.

But for high-potential employees, the problem is often the opposite: “lots of cattle, no hat.”  Many high-potential leadership development programs include putting the participants into “stretch experiences” which test their skills, agility, and commitment. And many of these bright young people, seemingly with all the qualities of a future leader, fail to live up to expectations when given a chance. There are many possible reasons for that failure, and one is “lots of cattle, no hat.”

Here’s an example: Years ago, I was coaching a young, super-star, high-potential leader. The CEO of the company had identified her talent and put her in charge of a huge, high-profile project. Despite that, her rank in the company was only a Director. She was not invited to participate in key meetings, or given access to the resources and networks that were available to officers of the company. Although she tried her best, she was unable to drive the results the CEO expected. The second she was promoted to VP, though, she and her team took off like a rocket. She needed that bigger hat!

I have written before about the formula for employee burnout: High Responsibility + Low Power. Sounds a lot like “lots of cattle, no hat.” It’s important to keep that in mind as you are developing your high-potential employees. It’s a bad idea to burn out anyone working for you, but it’s especially ineffective to burn out your top talent.

If you want to know more about how to give your employees the right-size hat, contact us at

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