You might think horses have little to do with leadership – but author Julia Felton says working with our equine friends can reveal a lot about who we are as leaders
The late, great Winston Churchill noted that: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”. But it’s not just the soothing properties a horse can have that are beneficial to managers; these powerful beasts have a lot to teach us about our own leadership style too.
Working with horses allows us to experience leadership principles in a new way by providing a unique opportunity to learn how to better communicate with integrity and authenticity, remain confident when faced with uncertainty, and motivate and encourage those we are attempting to lead. Being with horses provides a great way to experience the leadership skills needed in the workplace today.
Taking the reins
As prey animals, horses are always in fear for their safety, so they are happy for us to step up into the leadership role as long as we demonstrate that we are leaders worth following. Since horses respond in the moment, they offer us clear and honest feedback about our current strengths and shortcomings as leaders. A simple leading exercise may result in a horse moving enthusiastically for one leader, and refusing to budge for the next. The difference is in the person’s sense of him/herself as a leader in that situation.
Working with horses helps us understand the importance of cultivating and nurturing the relationships with our colleagues, and in fact, can actually facilitate our ability to be successful.
Leadership isn’t just about getting people from one place to the other, it’s about developing your leadership consciousness, about true willingness versus compliance. Leadership is about how we lead, how we are perceived and how we are received. Often we are unaware of how our body language, our attitude and our tone of voice are impacting our communication and how others view us. Living in the non-verbal world of communication, horses can provide feedback on how we show up and what we truly need to do to inspire and lead people. To a horse, everything means something, nothing means nothing. A horse cares nothing about your title or position, only how much you care. Power is not an option, earn the authority to lead and your effort is rewarded by the horse allowing you to lead him.
A horse’s survival depends upon their ability to accurately scan the environment for incongruence. As such, they “read” our minds (intentions) and hearts (character), and when they discover differences between what they “feel” from us and how we behave, they are unlikely to cooperate. To horses (and to humans), the integrity of our hearts and minds is often more important in leadership than our words and actions. This is the reason why one person may outwardly display all the signs of a great leader but fail to get the results that someone else can achieve. I’m sure you can think of many examples when you have observed this in the workplace.
The rules of the game have changed and the only certainty in business today is that change is inevitable. Today’s leaders have to be able to cope with the frenetic pace of both their personal and work environments. Unfortunately for many, meeting deadlines and “getting the job done” is often our first priority – often at the expense of relationships. Working with horses helps us understand the importance of cultivating and nurturing the relationships with our colleagues, and in fact, can actually facilitate our ability to be successful. When working with the horses, those who take time to establish a connection with the horse before moving to task encounter less resistance, and in fact, experience a much greater sense of partnership. Remember: If you can encourage a horse to trust and follow, you can encourage people to do the same.
Lao Tzu once said that ‘to lead people, walk behind them’. Traditionally when you think of leadership, do you think of being in front or behind your team? This question challenges us to think outside the box about leadership style and result. To lead from behind means you must have a clear vision and the ability to communicate that vision to your team. For this to happen, you need cooperation from your team, built on a solid foundation of trust, respect and understanding. Allowing your team to go before you encourages confidence, exploration, freedom and creativity, within the individuals that make up your team.
When working with horses we are not looking at what you do as a leader, but more importantly who you are being as a leader. Being an extraordinary leader means being present and open to listening to your team. Even in the best teams fear of making a mistake, looking bad or appearing stupid inhibits best performance. It is up to you as the leader to create the environment where breakthrough ideas can be voiced and heard without fear.
Working with horses you will learn how to synchronise your intention – mentally, emotionally and physically. When you start using this new knowledge with your team, they will feel motivated, excited and willing to work with you, which will lead to a new level of performance.
Julia Felton is the author of Unbridled Success (£14.99, Panoma Press, formerly Ecademy Press)