“There will never be any class of people in our country that can replace the old western cowman for common sense, shrewdness, humor and fine citizenship.”
–Will Rogers, American actor (1879-1935)*
When I think of “cowboy ethics,” I remember my childhood in Southern California and watching Roy Rogers and Dale Evans on television. What wonderful role models they were! From a Cowboy’s & Indians Magazine article in 2011 during the Roy Rogers Centennial:
“He was as good as they come. He was a straight shooter and could sit a horse as if he were born in the saddle. He could yodel like nobody’s business. He walked the straight and narrow in his hand-tooled boots and lived by a code worthy of his white Stetson.”
Like many toddlers back then, I took a nap in the afternoons after a busy day of play. Then, I would wake up to watch the King of the Cowboys on television, which I recall has sponsored by Nestle’s Quik (which became Nesquik), chocolate mix. I remember wanting to go visit Roy and his family at the ranch every single day. That impression has stayed with me all these years.
James P. Owen and the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership focus on the values that are part of our American Western heritage. When I returned to Austin in summer, 2013, I was delighted to find the Center based here!
“Values all Americans can share, no matter what our politics, our religion, or our station in life.”
Cowboys are heroic — not just because they do a dangerous job, but because they stand for something. Principles like honor, loyalty and courage lie at the heart of the Cowboy Way.
The Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership promotes the following ten principles to live by. I believe these are good guidelines not only for businesses, but also for nonprofit organizations.
1. Live each day with courage
2. Take pride in your work
3. Always finish what you start
4. Do what has to be done
5. Be tough, but fair
6. When you make a promise, keep it
7. Ride for the brand
8. Talk less and say more
9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale
10. Know where to draw the line.
The Center not only provides support to adults of all walks of life, it has also developed a program to inspire youth to “do the right thing – the cowboy way.” Based on the Ten Principles of the Code of the West, the course helps students build the personal qualities they will need to achieve true career and life success.
I recently discovered that legendary film star and humorist Gene Autry (1907-1998), promoted his own “Cowboy Code.”
Autry’s code was written,
“For all of his young fans that wanted to be just like him. A wildly popular recording, movie, and television cowboy superstar of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, his cowboy code reflected the characters he portrayed: men of high moral character that stood for everything that was good, decent, and fair.”
Returning to the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, I obtained a copy of James Owen’s book, Cowboy Values: Recapturing What America Once Stood For (Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2008). The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of cowboys and the American West by a number of contemporary photographers. James remarks that America needs the cowboy more than ever, and he cites Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859):
“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Here is one of many discussions I especially enjoyed:
“With a little creativity and commitment to do something, each of us can find some way to make a difference, however modest …. when we get involved in a personal, hands-on way, it sets up a completely different dynamic: one in which whatever time and energy we give yields a rich dividend in terms of the satisfaction and expanded awareness we get back.”
Stepping back to the 19th century, there was also something called the Code of the West.
“The Code of the West is the classic American code of ethics created out of necessity by the pioneers of the western frontier. The Code was never a formally written document. Instead, it was an unwritten set of rules which established the requirements of living an honorable life. These rules served as the governing law of the West before formal law reached the territories.”
Cowboy ethics springs from the code.
In closing, you might enjoy watching this video interview featuring James P. Owen, posted by the Center for American Values.
Let’s all be more like cowboys, whether we be businessmen or business women, organizational leaders, nonprofit professionals, or simply family members (no matter what age).
- Not all “cowboys” are male. You might enjoy reading an article about ranch life in Hawaii by Rachel Hahn for Vogue, “Deep in Hawaiian Cowboy Country, Female Pau Riders Keep Family Traditions Alive” (June 13, 2019).
- Kathy Holmes for ColoradoBiz, “Reflections on Leadership: Be Like a Cowboy” (March 29, 2017).
- Steve Kaskovich in the Business section of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Mamas Do Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” (May 2, 2015).
- Dawn Moore has written about her late father (who played the Lone Ranger), for The Huffington Post (HuffPost Entertainment), “What Becomes a Legacy Most?” (June 20, 2013).
“What’s his legacy? That he inspired and continues to inspire the notion of offering assistance without seeking acknowledgement or fame. To come to the aid of someone in need. Pretty powerful stuff. As is the Lone Ranger Creed. Written by Fran Striker in 1933 as the template for the radio show’s writers – as in, ‘What would the Lone Ranger do?’ – it remains remarkably timeless. Its tenants set quite a high moral bar few people could master; fewer still would even attempt. My dad was quoted often as saying portraying the character made him a better person. A little hokey perhaps, but hey, if the love that flows from his multi-generational fans is any measure of that effort, then I would say he accomplished his goal.”
- Cowboy Kent Rollins, “What is a Cowboy? (National Day of the Cowboy)” on YouTube (2017). The real deal!
- Vaquero Enterprises, “The Cowboy Code.”
- Someone was kind enough to send me a link to an article announcing just how serious the state of Wyoming is about “cowboy ethics.” Here is a write-up courtesy of State Symbols USA, Wyoming State Code of Ethics.
If you want to be a real life, modern cowboy, consider the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M University Kingsville. The quote at the top of the page was recently shared by a member of the King Ranch Family on Facebook (*). I couldn’t resist sharing it here.
Although not related to ethics, a friend shared a short film with me dating from 1917 by The Bray Studios, Inc., “How the Cowboy Makes His Lariat.” It shows cowboys in action on another type of task, and you might enjoy it.