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Lessons in Leadership from a Horse

Do you ever struggle to get your point of view across, or get buy-in of your latest brilliant new idea?

Sometimes we think we’ve made our case interpreting the body language of the other person as an indication they are ready to sign up because and they are nodding, maintaining eye contact and smiling.

But what if they’re not?

They might be listening out of politeness rather than conviction or prepared at least to hear you out. Like an over eager salesman too keen to get your signature on the sales document you run the risk of losing them if you jump in too early.

Sometimes it’s better to wait and that can be hard in our frantically paced, go get ‘em now world.

I recently attended a session on leadership skills like no other I had ever attended. Horse whispering is a term I’d heard of but knew nothing about. I’ve always been a bit wary of horses ever since being introduced to a friends’ pony when we were small. The pony clearly sensed my fear, and just to show who was boss promptly stood on my feet. The more I protested to my friend, the more the pony leant its weight forward crushing my toes. Lucky to escape with all my bruised digits intact and my friend’s laughter ringing in my ears, I have carefully avoided being in hoof reach ever since.

So what was this about?

Fundamentally it was a lesson in trust and the understanding that being seen as a worthy leader is a choice made by others.

A horse is an intelligent animal and I was about to learn a lot about equine emotional intelligence from these beautiful creatures who have no agenda except what is happening between you and them.

When we’re asked for examples of who we consider are good leaders it’s common to include people like Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, Gandhi or Winston Churchill. But on what basis?  We won’t have had any direct experience of their leadership. We create an idea of what a good leader is and fill in the gaps with our own narrative and assumptions.

Leadership can be learned and it takes practice, but as our morning session with the Four Legged Sages taught us includes those aspects not commonly thought of, including the need to temper your energy levels to meet the needs of a group or individual.

Go in too heavy handed with excessive exuberance and excitement and the introverts will withdraw into their shells faster than you can say “escargots in garlic butter”. Too little and you risk torpor and boredom. In true Goldilocks style it’s about getting it just right by understanding who is in your team.

Like an opera singer, it’s about projecting your energy forwards from your chest, which requires less effort than a push or a pull.

It’s been said the best leaders listen first and speak later.  In addition when you are speak as a leader you have to ensure others are listening!  This is helped by sharing information that is relevant and valid, transparent without any hidden agenda, honest and above all consistent.

It’s your observable behaviours as much as your language (as long as these are congruent) that determines your level of potential trustworthiness.

Using these skill-sets to communicate with a horse provided huge insights into how following four simple steps can achieve true “followship” where the horse ultimately chooses to follow the human.

The Four Steps to Followship:

  1. The insightful watch. This was about observing, interacting and noticing.
  2. Opening the conversation. Here it was demonstrating your intent to lead, showing you wish no harm and starting to earn trust through your trustworthy behaviour.
  3. The Patient Pause. Perhaps the hardest part is in giving a person (or a horse!) the time they need to feel safe. Under time pressure it’s easy to want to hurry this process up, but like proving dough to make bread, some things simply can’t be hurried, otherwise you risk getting a different outcome from what was expected
  4. The Moment of Choice. My biggest insight was the understanding we achieve leadership by enabling others to follow rather than simply learning good leadership skills. When someone is promoted to a position of leadership based on technical merit, knowing how to engage greater followship can be missing in action.

Being a leader worth following is about mutual respect, providing clear communication, the autonomy to demonstrate what you’re capable of, consistency, reliability, empathy and being treated in a fair and equitable way.

Who knew you could learn so much about ourselves as human beings from our equine friends?

With grateful thanks to Linda and the Four Legged Sages for providing a new perspective on effective leadership. I am sure I won’t be at risk of having my toes trodden on again at my next horse encounter.

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