Show jumping fans recognize the late Hunter Harrison as the name behind the famous Double H Farm and owner of superstar horses like two-time Olympic team gold medal winner Sapphire, and FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final winner HH Azur. Hunter was also an incredibly influential figure in show jumping as he initiated sponsorship of top events from the CN and CP railroad companies, which drastically helped elevate the sport to another level.
But as a four-time CEO in the railroad industry, Hunter was known around the world for his unique brand of leadership — brash, bold, and uncompromising. Reading about how he led in the railroad world sheds light on how he impacted the world of show jumping as well.
“Many aspects of my life have been heavily influenced by this special and truly one-of-a-kind man,” McLain Ward said. “To know him was a privilege, to work for him a challenge, to impress him an honor, and to have him by your side a comfort. There are not many men left in the world like Hunter Harrison.”
Author Howard Green spent many hours with Hunter in the writing of his insightful biography, “Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison,” which reveals an abundance of fascinating details about Hunter’s career and personal life, including how his demanding and no-nonsense approach to railroading led many to a “love him or hate him” view of the powerful man.
But Hunter’s ability to lead and inspire was legendary, and the example he set inside and outside of the equestrian world is applicable in any setting. Embrace your inner Hunter Harrison with these 10 nuggets of wisdom about how to be an influential and powerful leader.1. Lead by Example
In his book, Howard tells the story of when a levee broke in Tennessee, flooding a section of track and blocking rail traffic. The engineer and conductor didn’t want to drive a train across the flooded track. As a result, Hunter said, “I guess I’m going to be driving a train.” It inspired the engineer and conductor to hop on and successfully drive the train across, with Hunter aboard.
“While it was perhaps a case of major bravado, it also sent a message through the organization about leadership. Years later, Hunter confessed that only a fool wouldn’t have been worried. Hedging his bets, he stood on the outside of the engine, ready to leap into the water if something went wrong. It was the full Hunter on display — high risk, high reward.”
Hunter and his family at the Olympics.2. Know How to Motivate
“Reading people, getting to know what motivated them — good or bad — was one of [Hunter’s] strengths. Mostly, he believed money and a sense of purpose were the principal motivators, but he professed that some people needed to be hollered at while others needed to be stroked. He didn’t like the term ‘empowerment’ and believed that when employees were permitted a long leash, it was a way for managers to ditch the responsibility to manage.”3. Find Talent, Then Develop It
“He didn’t necessarily want the smartest people in the world, he wanted the hardest-working people in the world. ‘Y’all take the technology and give me the good worker and I’ll beat you,’ [Hunter] told them. ‘Don’t let them be just a worker bee,’ he implored, ‘cause that’s what you’ll get.’ And if there was a great person working in another industry, he wanted that person at CN. ‘Find me a good athlete and we’ll develop ‘em,’ he said. ‘We’ll make ‘em into what they need to be.’”
Hunter and Rodrigo Pessoa. Photo by The Book, LLC.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Get Your Hands Dirty
While holding the helm as CEO at CN, Hunter spotted a problem with train traffic and immediately called the dispatcher. “Ultimately, he pulled an all-nighter — as dispatcher — to solve the gridlock that was affecting the whole railroad. While he did, the employee was treated to a master class. Such boots-on-the-ground moments are now Hunter lore.”5. Let People Do What They’re Good At
Hunter knew how to turn a talented employee loose. In the early days of his vice-presidency at Burlington Northern (BN), Hunter worked with Sue Rathe, who was in charge of putting together the daily reports of the railroad’s statistics. Sue showed Hunter how to access the data of the railroad’s online inventory tracker, and he used that data to improve performance.
So Hunter asked Sue: “If you could work on anything you wanted, what would you want to work on?” When Sue replied that she’d like to create a way to measure service performance, Hunter spoke to her immediate supervisor “and said, ‘Take everything off her plate. She only works on this.’ It was the birth of Major Corridor Service Measurement (MCSM), a system that tracked traffic patterns from origins to destinations.” It became an imperative tool in the industry.
Quentin Judge, Valerie Renihan, Cayce Harrison, Louise Serio at the "Railroader" launch party.
6. Reward Effort
Hunter was known for being tough, but he could also be generous and thoughtful, scheduling golf trips or stays in a top hotel to reward effort. “Hunter treated such people like stars, but he got loyal treatment in return. While some were afraid of him, the ones who thrived were those who gravitated toward his challenges and didn’t want to disappoint him.”7. Be On Your Employees’ Side
Hunter knew how to inspire workers. When he took over at Illinois Central, workers asked him if he’d stop hiring outside contractors. “’You work with me,’ he told them, ‘I’ll work with you. I’m a fair guy.’”8. Be Okay With Saying ‘No’
Hunter knew the power of saying ‘no.’ “Early on, Hunter developed the ability to use a powerful two-letter word: ‘no.’ He didn’t just use it with employees, but with customers, too. A counterintuitive approach in an industry that had always let the customer dictate railroad schedules.”
9. Play to Your Strengths
Hunter started out working in the railyard but never forgot his roots. Howard notes that Hunter’s improvement of a railroad operating ratio (an essential measurement of its efficiency) stemmed from his experience. “For Hunter, a lot of it came back to his time in the tower as a trainmaster. ‘Don’t forget what got ya there. If that’s one of your powers, that’s your strength; don’t lose it.’”10. Make a Reputation
When Hunter had to deal with some employees who were leaving before the end of their shifts, “his approach was to fly there and confront ‘the meanest sonofabitch’ at the terminal and read the riot act. His stance worked. People snapped to attention. Hunter’s view was that you didn’t have to win too many fights to establish a reputation. Once you did, it would rapidly waft through the company. Change-agents like Hunter weren’t looking for votes to be re-elected.”
Hunter’s legacy lives on not only in the changes he wrought in the railroad industry, but also in the influence of Double H Farm horses and riders on the show jumping world. Read more in “Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison,” available at the Winter Equestrian Festival Boutique, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
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All photos courtesy of Jump Media.