there are workhorses, and there are show ponies. Which one are you?”

Source: unknown

I love this question. It catches everyone somewhat off guard. I still ask it of myself quite regularly. I hope you are pondering it of yourself right now.

Why this horse-play?

This article continues my exploration into the difference between having and being. From a commercial projects perspective I think we can all imagine people, departments, companies, or even corners of whole industries that we would happily place into one category or the other. My point in raising this analogy, as a link to the having and being modality, is simply to highlight something we are all prone to do. Liberally generalise and categories the other, but fail to reflect upon when we are pursuing needs best suited only to ourselves.

The cart before the horse

Let me foreshadow where this article is going. In projects of all type, we all share the guilt of passive generalisations of others, whilst falsely perceiving ourselves to be representing a more adaptable mode. We are self-declaring our being mode, and accusing the other of seeking simply to have needs and act upon them in categorically assignable ways. We fool ourselves into thinking we are the ones in the moment and taking positions that protect intended future outcomes.

This is where I think we all become the enemy of our projects. Our projects are intended change. They necessarily require us to be minded in a transformative mode. Our categorisations of others make their needs seem distinct from our own. It can be the justification for much, including slight-of-hand. We deem ourselves to be more representing the true nature of our project, or at least the spirit of our relationships. That the other is the one in the wrong.

Horses for courses

I observe some interesting reactions when the question of being a workhorse or show-pony is posed.

  • There is the immediate and confident response…closely followed by the doubt as to what has just been admitted;
  • or the confident response that is then immediately justified as “that’s just the way I am”.
  • There is the hesitant response, where the answer is being mulled over inwardly, before committing to a tactical representation.
  • Or there is no answer at all – as the mulling over becomes revealing of the trap that has been set.

Psychology may help me understand the immediate reactions I observe. It may also offer a perspective toward the more considered response. Maybe it will explain my own mischief in asking the question at all.

To commit to being a workhorse sounds the more noble sentiment perhaps. It reflects a diligence to your craft, and studiousness, and a serious regard to your endeavour. But if you jumped to this answer, it dawns on you that maybe you are someone else’s stooge, the effort behind someone else’s success, someone more showy than you.

So perhaps the better answer is to be the show-horse. The gallant and confident, the leader with courage and valour, the annoying so and so that seems to get it all right, so often, and so easily. The silky-smooth unflappable fop. But then that is to admit to being carefree, perhaps a little lazy and laissez-faire, or the mouthpiece that just takes all the glory. The one attracting the attention of the cynic. For all your medals you are just the metaphorical OBE (other b*****’s efforts).

Horses for courses

The point is of course that there is no correct response. We are all too self assured to be labelled one way of the other. However, I find myself now seeing into this a little more. Both answers are to reflect something we hold in low regard. Behind the veneer of what seems a good place to be.

do we really have to choose between one and the other?”

Source: Nancy Ancowitz, author and career coach at New York University

Psychology agrees. The answer is to be both, and the trick is knowing how to assess the ground conditions and therefore what tack to wear. As was stated in Psychology Today.

It is therefore helpful to have awareness and skill sets of both. Having your own work to show, and knowing how to show your work.

Look to the mirror, not the gift-horse

My observation is more connected with how we see others. We can assess people quickly, and put them in one camp or the other. Whilst we can assess ourselves more generously and with more permission to ebb and flow between the two. No one wants to admit to just being the one doing the work blindly, or the one only interested in presenting it. At least no one you would hold in high regard for long, or feel assured that you could depend.

Making quick judgements is a useful short-cut. We are pre-programmed to do just that. But the more rounded the person, the harder it may be to tell. You may be judging quickly, but reflecting upon the duality and choice you wish you could be. Judging them for acting according to the categorisation you’ve outlined. Not realising it is what you would do if you were them, that you actually see.

By example, introversion and extroversion can be confused by this analogy. My learning of this Jungian derived difference is that the concept is misappropriated and culturally confused. It is not the shy or outgoing metric many think it to be. In Myers-Briggs modelling it is explained as the place where you feel most at ease. Replenishing mental energy rather than expending it. It has little to do with social confidence which is situational and steeped in much wider interacting factors. It is quite possible to be extroverted but feel out of place. It is equally possible to be introverted but able to put on a show.

Being vs having

Which gives my own interpretation of what this means to be either self-identifying yourself as the workhorse or the show-pony. It is a place to start assessing how to be a better you. Rather than feeling you have a preferred role to play. Or projecting hidden doubts upon others who are doing that which you feel least at ease.

We know if we are more comfortable quietly turning a wheel or taking part in the harrass and sharing the strain in a team. Or if the odd gallop, the show, and the parade in the paddock puts the spring in your step. It is easy to allow such comfortable placement to begin to define which role we think ourselves best.

Allowing these two extremes to define us invites distance and separation. Perhaps show ponies have a better empathy with their audience. Perhaps the workhorse a better understanding of the effort needed to honour glib promises a show-pony has made. Being one or other is inviting a greater distance between these extremes. It is to invite alienation from the whole. At a project level this is to invite inner divides, and my argument is that this invites projects | within projects to detach from wider goals. We adopt transitional states but to counter the outcome that our other project actors are anticipated to seize.

At each unique personal level, this is also problematic for us too. The workhorse may consider themselves more diligent and to have more industry; be more straight-forward in saying what is what. But that is also the excuse to hang-back and check everything again, tentatively seek more opinion, deny creativity and new ideas (by thinking others simply do not poses the understanding of what is involved). Perhaps our show-pony see this as intransigent. The stubborn mule.

Then what is seen from the other paddock? The showy confidence can lead to arrogance, and if it breeds easy success can be the road to short-cuts, a focus only on what is easier to win applause. The empathy and creativity of sales turned to spin and gamesmanship. Perhaps our workhorse sees this as the behaviour of the work-shy. The flighty horse, there for trumpets, but caring little for what goes on after the Lord Mayor’s show.

These are extremes and wild generalisation. I hope the point is made well enough. Whichever attitude you see, and which ever you may want to be, the trick is to know when to be which. Be capable of both. Be both, but have the singular attitude of neither. Be able to transform.

This is then to be adaptable. It is also to take the lead. It is a way to support others in their bid to do the same. To adopt the attitude necessary to do the graft. To adopt the attitude necessary to show their craft. Building trust in yourself. And respect for the other. Psychological safety and permitted vulnerability by both. All focused upon the wider transformation the whole project is trying to be.


Of course, these are generalisations. They assume our relationships are with well rounded counter-parts and colleagues. Judgements can be proved right. There are plenty of foals around masquerading as mature thoroughbreds. Just know better if it is you being the ass.

Am I a workhorse or show-pony?

I am trying hard to be both, and accepting some of the foibles that are saddled to each. I am the last horse to bolt – maybe still asleep on the hay. Happy to show-pony in short bursts if it is safe; but most comfortable watching before doing, working my craft, head in my nosebag. I like to dream of greener pastures, being the steed that never refuses the higher fences, but that’s easy whilst asleep on the hay. I do not have enough industry to be forever ploughing old ground. I have no wish to stay still and become the nag. So reign me in if I am being stubborn as a mule, or showing myself to be the jackass.

Workhorse or show-pony?

Yes to both. It takes hard work to put on a show.

be the workhorse; be the show-pony; and know when to be which. No one likes a smart ass. Or to be the butt of the joke”

adapted from here
Courtesy of the artist, tigatalu