John's Lesson

I am slogging through the knee-deep mud in my field to catch my new horse. I get within a few feet of her and ask her to turn to me. Instead she spins and runs to the other end of the field. I am wet and muddy and I want to throw the lead rope at her retreating back end.

Someone suggests getting a carrot to bribe her into compliance. I know however that a three second act of inconsistency on my part is all that it would take to destroy the tenuous trust building between us.

Stephen Covey defines integrity as a combination of competence and trustworthiness. My horses seek these qualities from me as their herd leader just as employees look for them in their corporate leaders.

One of them taught me a very clear lesson about the importance of integrity a few years ago.

I was contracted to develop a therapeutic equine program for another organization using six of my own horses. I soon discovered that my employers were neither knowledgeable nor empathetic to horses. The horses were tools to be used in the implementation of the program. It was with some misgivings that I left my horses there when the program closed for the winter.

When I returned in spring I was shocked to find that my lead horse, John, would not let anyone, including me, near him in the field. John is an older horse and had always been a big solid guy with a great work ethic. It was obvious from his body language that he had become angry, resentful and completely mistrusting of people.

John was accustomed to humans leaders who listened to him, understood his value system, and spoke his language. Suddenly ‘the management’ had changed tactics and introduced new methods of conducting business that John did not understand. More importantly the new leadership style did not reflect the values that John had come to depend on for his security and wellbeing.

Faced with these inconsistent actions on the part of his leaders, John became uncooperative and resentful. The farm staff in turn attempted to buy his compliance and his trust with buckets of carrots, which lessened their integrity even further in John’s eyes. John became impossible to catch and lead.

I used to be an employer who thought that a paycheque was the answer to employee loyalty. One year I even offered bonuses for good performance. When this resulted in the worst staff performances in our company’s history I had to take a long hard look at my leadership philosophy.

I came to the realization that my human staff needed the same empathy, clear communication and consistent adherence to values that I offered my horses. I needed to develop relationships based on honesty trust and respect rather than simply trying to buy my employees off with a bigger bucket of carrots.

So once more I trudge across the field after Goldie knowing that if I want to lead with integrity I have to “walk the talk” even in knee-deep mud. This time when I get close to her instead of running away she turns to face me.

Laura Hunter

"Horses want to see the same qualities of character in their leaders that we want to see in ourselves. It's simple: Being the better horse can develop the balance to becoming a better person."
Chris Irwin


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