President’s Message: Wanted: Therapist Wagon Masters

Randi Gottlieb
President, LA-CAMFT

As I was preparing for the first workshop of the LA-CAMFT Leadership Development workshop series, I came across an article I had saved for 15 years – introduced to me in 2001 – as part of an executive leadership certificate program at UC Davis. The presenters of that course in leadership came across it in 1988 while reading the Harvard Business Review in preparation for teaching their course in leadership development, and they were still using it in their course 13 years later when they passed it on to me!

There’s something moving to me about this sequence of events – however small – that made me take a moment to pause… and smile. At the time he wrote Wagon Masters and Lesser Managers, J.S. Ninomiya had worked 27 years for Ford as a line worker, researcher, and “lesser manager”. He wasn’t a renown leader or writer and it appears he hasn’t published anything since, yet, the wisdom of his observations penned 28 years ago still holds true. Also true is that Ninomaya’s wisdom will continue to live on as long as new leaders incorporate his wisdom into their own leadership style and continue to mentor others to do the same. It is to this end that I share the key idea of Wagon Masters with you now.

In Ninomiya’s own words:

“Some of the most effective managers [leaders] this country has ever seen were the wagon masters of the westward movement in the last century. A wagon master had two jobs. He had to keep the wagons moving toward their destination day after day despite all obstacles. He also had to maintain harmony and a spirit of teamwork among the members of his party and to resolve daily problems before they became divisive. A wagon master’s worth was measured by his ability to reach the destination safely and to keep spirits high along the way. He had to do both in order to do either. I see the skills of effective [leaders] as essentially the same….. Good [leaders] genuinely like and appreciate people. They don’t just manipulate or command; they lead. And they understand their dual function. Getting the wagons to Oregon without the passengers is no achievement. Keeping everyone in high spirits right up to the moment they perish in the desert is not success.”

I find the Wagon Master metaphor simple but profoundly accurate as a description of the tension that always exists between achieving tasks and nurturing relationships, between outcome and process. Therapists who chose to enter into leadership need both sets of skills in order to be successful for whatever leadership roles they endeavor to take on: whether it be chairing a committee or leading a team, managing a project or presiding over a board, designing a single workshop or developing an entire curriculum, coordinating an event or editing a newsletter, managing a group practice, directing a community counseling center, or organizing a public relations campaign regarding mental health policy.

In truth, this is similar to what we know is required to be a good clinician, i.e. to manage both content and process… skills for assessment, psychological theory and treatment, case formulation and management, as well as skills associated with creating and sustaining therapeutic relationship such as the ability to be present, develop rapport, engage, foster trust, and inspire hope.

I believe that to have a healthy therapy community, we not only need to have competent clinicians, we also need to increase the number of therapist Wagon Masters among our ranks! To this end, we have created the LA-CAMFT Leadership Development Workshop series and are offering it free to LA-CAMFT members. If you missed the first workshop April 3rd, no worries! You are welcome to join us for workshop #2 to learn the essentials of Vision, Mission, Objectives, and Outcomes: Moving from idea to implementation. Stay tuned for more information and registration details.

To read the entire Ninomiya article go to