More Cowbell: Get to Know Your Thought Leaders

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Recently, I had lunch with a new colleague who grew up on a farm in Minnesota. This is an important detail to share at the top of this post because it explains his use of a really fascinating term. Well, fascinating for a suburban raised woman like me.
He was discussing his industry in our region, and his desire to launch the effort of the organization to a new level. And he said, “I need help identifying my bell cows.”
I must have looked politely confused because he quickly explained that in rural terms, the bell cow is the cow that (duh, Gretchen) has the bell around its neck and is the sort of clangly, bangy leader for the others.
I of course immediately Googled it on my trusty iPhone and found out that a bell cow is: a cow, esp. the lead cow of a herd, having a bell attached to a collar around its neck so that the herd can be located easily.
I really like the turn of phrase. It’s a vivid twist on the idea of thought leader, and it seems more rudimentary, a little less refined, a little more grassroots (pastures and all that) than the sleek sophisticated concept of the other. A bell cow is fundamentally useful and necessary. If I was one of the other cows, I wouldn’t have a hope without following the noise. If I was the farmer, it sure is easier to identify the entire herd by listening for the distinct noise of that bell.
As we run our nonprofits, and for-profits, and seek to launch our mission to new levels, and hope for increased engagement from an ever growing, networked cohort (after all, that’s what the social revolution has inspired us to crave), we all need to know who are bellow cows are.
Who are the folks already making loads of noise within your sphere (for good or bad, right)? Chances are, you’ve got people following them. Listen for them, and you’re likely to find entire new tribes of interested people to get to know. Can you name your bell cows? Do you know why they “like” you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter? Why they always share your content and what makes them cheerlead for you? 
It’s basic to say don’t ever take these people for granted. If you are the leader of an organization, go to your Facebook page right now. Take a look at who is most active in sharing your brand, and introduce yourself. Right now. Go. This blog will still be here when you get back!
I often notice in organizations I work with that an awful lot of energy and attention is put on what we want to say to the followers. We assume WE are the bell cow, but we may not be and in some cases it is infinitely more beneficial to tap the talents of these noisy, clanging leaders and funnel our efforts toward equipping them to be even louder and more clangy than trying to stand in the corner of the pasture and wave our arms and try to catch attention.
So, in the infamous words of Christopher Walkin, “I need more cowbell.” And so do you.


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