4 career lessons from movie and TV cowboys

Paramount Network

For those of us who grew up consuming a steady diet of cowboy TV shows and movies, the messaging was usually black and white … literally. The guys with the pristine white cowboy hats were always the good guys, while the mean scruffy guys with the black hats were always up to no good.

The most recent crop of Westerns share precious few similarities to the classics other than the locales and ubiquitous cowboy hats. The heroes are flawed, their missions full of conflict and confusion, and at the end of the day, it’s often difficult to know exactly who you’re supposed to be rooting for.

It fills me with great joy to let you know that Michael R. Grauer, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture/Curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum offered some deep insight into cowboy culture. I’m gleeful not only that he decided to speak with Ladders, but also that fascinating careers like this exist. I digress. Onto the interesting cowboy tidbits.

They have qualities we all want

“Cowboys remain fascinating world-wide, from my research and in my opinion, because they represent qualities that many want to see/find in themselves, or admire in others: toughness, resilience, loyalty, perseverance, quick-thinking, improvisation, and mostly freedom,” Grauer said. He also believes it’s the unpredictability and even the fear provoked in the culture and lifestyle that many found attractive.


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“That’s why the “doctors, and lawyers, and such basically invented the myth that cowboys were dangerous riffraff and bad men, trail trash,” Grauer explains. “That attraction was a threat to these men for their control over their wives, sisters, mothers, daughters, etc. Ironically, most of the early cowboy and Western stories were serialized in women’s magazines. Those publishers knew what sold!”

Cowboy lessons learned: Managing your reputation is important. You might have a boatload of amazing skills, but if someone is intent on destroying your professional reputation, you’ll have to spend a lot of time on reputation management as well. Also, know your audience. Early cowboy and Western stories were positioned in a way to reach their target demographic which happened to be mostly women. If you’re in charge of your personal or corporate brand outreach, make sure you know who you’re targeting and why.

It’s more political than you think

While cowboy culture and Westerns, in general, were once incredibly popular, for a while there they went out of favor. “The waning of cowboy and Western films was largely a product of the Vietnam era when Westerns stars such as John Wayne were under assault and attack by many in the left-leaning media and in academia,” Grauer explains.

Cowboy lessons learned: Unless you’re actually a politician or work in a field related to the topic you champion, you might have to temper your political leanings- at least publicly. In an age of social media outrage, it’s crucial to realize that if you’re an executive at a corporation, for better or worse you’re seen as their representative even on your off time. And it’s not just you, but possibly the company you work for that could suffer as a result of your actions.

Their legend evolves along with the rest of us

“The difference between John Dutton (Yellowstone) and Walt Longmire (Longmire) (and I would throw in Rick Grimes of Walking Dead too as it is a Western) the cowboy and Western characters from the past is that the current characters are all-too-human human and often deeply flawed,” Grauer explains. “But, down deep, most of us still admire these same characters for the same qualities we’ve always loved about cowboys.”

Cowboy lessons learned: None of us are perfect. And some of the best leaders prove themselves so by exhibiting their weaknesses and flaws along with their strengths. You don’t have to strive for perfection in the workplace to be a role model or team leader worth following.

Deputies are important too!

One of the magical parts of Westerns and cowboy lore are the deputies or second in command or reluctant heroes forced to be the leader. Grauer said, “There were always seconds in command who stepped up, whether it be on a cattle drive or in a trench in France in World War I or on the streets in a non-fictitious Dodge City.” And these hard workers weren’t looking to be the top dog. “They truly shunned the limelight preferring to do their work, earn their wages, and go home at the end of the day. Likewise, there was a pecking order in cowboy crews, and in many respects, cowboys invented “next man up.”

Cowboy lessons learned: Teamwork matters, whether it’s working with longhorns or corralling in an out of control expense account.

And another thing … Grauer most emphatically believes “Everybody, everywhere, whether they will admit it or not, at one time dreamed of being a cowboy. The End. Amen.”