On paper we are all great leaders

The other day a friend of mine sent me an online leadership assessment. In turn, I asked a few friends to fill it out. Not surprisingly, we all had great scores. It’s a relatively simple matter to come up with the right answers on a questionnaire (especially when it’s multiple choice!)

Questionnaires such as these support our beliefs that we are just naturally competent leaders with all the requisite soft skills to lead teams. In the corporate world, the term ‘soft skills’ creates an impression that leadership skills are more easily learned (and possibly less important) than technical skills. The truth is, like any other responsible position, leadership always looks easier than it is. And like any other skill it is best mastered through experiential learning and hands-on practice.

So, how can horses teach us about leadership? Dealing with a horse presents us with an opportunity to walk the talk. It’s a real-life, hands-on experience where nothing else works except good leadership qualities and actions.

Why horses? Horses are hard wired to respond to leadership. They’ve been so for thousands of years. In the wild, they’re prey animals. To survive, they must be members of a highly effective team with a strong leader who has earned their trust and respect. In the hierarchy of the herd, each horse must take leadership responsibility for the next horse down. In a world where leadership is a matter of life and death they are true experts.

The horses used in equine-assisted training are domesticated but still have the instincts of their ancestors. When we work with a horse it considers us to be a member of their herd. If we can’t step up to the plate as a leader, their only alternative is to take charge. Someone has to take responsibility for leading the herd!

Horses respond objectively to our excellent, adequate or less-than-perfect leadership attempts. Their feedback isn’t coloured by any pre-conceived notions of who you are. They care only about your actions. As a student of mine puts it so well, “A horse doesn’t care about your title, your education or your appearance. He just wants you to lead, follow or get out of the way.“ It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get this kind of objective feedback from our human bosses, co-workers or clinic leaders.

Horses, like most animals, live in the moment; so they respond to your behaviour at that instant. As you change your behaviour, their response changes immediately. A horse provides an instant performance review for every leadership style and theory presented to it.

People often struggle with mixed messages. Our words convey one message while our body language is saying something completely different. As non-verbal creatures, horses don’t separate their thoughts from their actions so they simply can’t respond to a mixed message. To get the results you want, you’ve got to take on the responsibility of being clear, concise and honest. This is one situation you can’t talk your way out of!

The horse takes a person out of their comfort zone and offers a learning experience that is not likely to be forgotten. Obviously, when you have a fifteen hundred pound horse on the end of a lead rope you must be engaged. You can’t zone out. Nor can you intimidate or coerce the horse into obeying you.

Your position as leader is earned by demonstrating patience, empathy, awareness, respect and calm assertiveness. Earning the trust of a horse is a powerful experience. As one of our participants describes it, “the first time he walked towards me and followed me absolutely by his own choice was a moment that has been suspended in time for me.”

In these challenging times there is often a tendency within businesses to downplay, even abandon the important soft skills of leadership. Practicing those so-called “soft” skills is what has enabled horses to survive both wild and human predators for thousands of years. When you really want to see if you have what it takes to weather, even thrive in, the tough times ahead — spend some time with a horse.

"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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