Learning from the Herd

At first glance, the herd is a fairly static environment with roles, responsibilities and daily schedules. A horse is a highly social animal which means a range of interactions but the herd is both constant and ever changing reflecting a routine set by the seasons, the weather and us.

Our herd is a mix of geldings, mares and one donkey ranging in age from two to sixteen. Observing them over the years highlights the similarities and the subtle changes that emerge as the number of horses has grown. In Animals Make Us Human, Temple Grandin suggests it is the horse’s very social nature that has made them so easy for us to domesticate – they don’t mind when territories cross, they are willing to live together in a created herd and they have a built in desire to cooperate.

A domestic herd is limited by the space they have to share, don’t have much of a choice as to who joins them and within limits they get along pretty well. With those parameters it is relatively easy to pull parallels from the herd to the workplace. To work well in a team we often need to be able to manage an open office environment, work with individuals we might not choose to spend time with and cooperation is not always the hallmark of being human.

Like a workplace team, the herd also has to deal with internal and external influences. Internal change is far more fluid than the stresses that we inflict on them but what is interesting and most reflective of workplace is how the herd collectively manages external stress.

From time to time change is imposed on the herd whether it’s adjusting the clock, adding a new member or splitting the herd up a change can be fiercely defended. Generally horses are not great at managing change and they treat change with the commitment of a life and death scenario. The herd quickly becomes a cohesive unit acting and responding in the interest of the group, old alliances are strengthened and new bonds are created, working together to either accept or repel the influence.

Change seems to be a constant that we cannot repel or ignore, but what we can do is manage how it impacts us personally. While we often feel alone in the turmoil of change supporting others through the process is another innate human characteristic. The herd demonstrates the importance of sticking together and supporting others while being open and willing to accept and adapt to what shows up.

Building on What Works

I love the opportunity to hone my horsemanship skills by riding with folks who are better than I. End of June, I travelled down to Bozeman, Montana to ride with Buck Brannaman. This year everything took on new meaning as I was able to see some of last years forgotten explanations from a different perspective. As the horse master Tom Dorrance said “the first thing you need is the last thing you’ll learn.”

For years riding instructors stood in the middle of the arena and yelled out what not to do as you walked, trotted and cantered around the arena. Fortunately few of those experiences stuck as I was no doubt more concerned with saving my life than listening to the person barking instructions. I learn best by a combination of inputs and now understand why those university lectures went in one ear and out the other, just listening isn’t my forte.

The mentors I now choose best reflect my learning style, teachers who are on their horses explaining what they are going to do and why, showing me how they do it and then letting me do it. Horsemanship, like leadership is about the why, it is about feel. It is about knowledge through experience, timing and recognising what shows up.

This years clinic included a number of competitive tasks which may sound contrary to what you believe the concepts of what natural horsemanship are. What became clearer to me this year is horsemanship is about being fair but effective through simple, consistent and clear communication. LIke all aspects of leadership It is about understanding why, being focused on the outcome and being ready to support no matter what shows up.

Competition magnifies the expectations we place on ourselves. It was interesting to watch where the desire to win got in the way of success. When my focus was on the time, Maddison became increasingly resistant. Reflecting on the successful outcome of some of the complex elements, I realise I was more concerned with Maddison than winning and we worked better together.

We have used competitive elements in our programs and it is so easy to observe where task versus relationship tips the scale. Those of you who have participated know the hands-on learning with horses is a far cry from a powerpoint presentation with simulations. The programs are about executing a series of relatively simple tasks through explanation, demonstration and then experience. The links you personally make from the horses to work, home or life in general through the facilitated discussions or reflection moments you share with us, is where the real learning happens.

We try and set up our sessions so we are able to reach you no matter your learning style. We recognised early on in our program development that the workplace doesn’t need a whole new set of leadership practices. What people in the workplace are ready for is another way to view relevant and common ideas and principles that need to become habits in our bodies instead of just our heads.

The Desire to Gain

“Fear of Loss is greater than the desire to gain.” Jeffrey Gitomer

The more I work with people and horses the more frequently I see fear of “what might happen” instead of being present to what is happening.

If the name Gitomer sounds familiar, you may know the statement refers to sales, not leadership or even horses.

I had the pleasure of attending the Art of Sales as a guest of Brian Pleet of Strategico a couple of weeks ago. The statement on fear was simply a few of the words that rang true for me as I listened to Gitomer speak.

It is interesting how a presentation on sales offers the same concepts we reference for horsemanship, leadership, communication and life in general.

Gitomer summarized his presentation with five key points:
· Attitude
· Belief in self
· Love of what you do
· Being prepared
· & above all Self-confidence

What we believe to be true

Would you walk under a ladder? Open an umbrella inside….. or break a chain letter? These were but a few of the beliefs put to the test on a recent airing of the CBC show DNTO (Definitely Not the Opera). Through an account of humorous and superstitious beliefs that both limit and inspire us, the host explored “What we believe but cannot prove.”

What we believe is influenced by our family, our community and our experience. Beliefs can be factual, derived or acquired, they allow us to predict events and consider the consequences of our actions. Beliefs hold a powerful grip on our emotions and are the hallmark of being human.

Sam Harris, an author who examines the tenets of religion suggests “beliefs are both logically and semantically related. Each constrains, and is in turn constrained by, many others.” The statement holds true for a range of leadership issues we face on a daily basis.

Leadership requires that we sometimes question our own beliefs. Believing we have no control of an outcome can paralyze us. Great leaders frequently make reference to a peer, a boss, a friend, a mentor, who believed in what they could do when they were not sure of their own abilities.

The limiting factor may simply be knowledge, so fill in that gap. If the know how and skill is there, then it may be a previous experience in your way. You may be holding back based on a belief that this situation will turn out the same as the last. Alternately the barrier might be the knowledge that someone executing something similar failed. “Each constrains, and in turn is constrained by, many others.” Factual, acquired or derived.

Rhys, a five year old red dun quarter horse, represented my limiting belief. I did not know what had happened to cause a previous wreck, so I had derived a range of possible scenarios that got in my way. I had someone who believed I could do it so I had to confront my own beliefs with the facts that I had the skill, the knowledge and the experience to succeed. Letting go of my fear of failing was the only belief holding me back.

“Anytime we do anything that involves chance, and everything involves chance, there is always that moment afterwards when you wonder if you should have done it.” There is also nothing more exhilarating than taking that risk and realizing success. Go ahead walk under the ladder.

In Admiration

What leaders do you admire? Just as a horse will mirror our habits, we reflect what we experience. Our own leadership philosophy can be shaped by many individuals and finding someone you truly admire helps the whole journey appear to be that much easier.

A fine horseman I had the great pleasure to ride with a couple of years ago, died last week. A legend in horsemanship circles Ray Hunt was a man who lead by example offering his 80 years of wisdom to anyone interested in learning.

Dubbed The Master of Communication, it was a title stuck. Ray may not have been known for his people skills but his horse skills are unquestionable. Ray always said he was in it for the horse. He showed people how to behave, so their horses had a chance.

Ray had been repeating that perspective for over forty years. It wasn’t just that he talked about what people should do but he showed people how easy it could be to have an outstanding partner in your horse. Ray may well have influenced more generations of horsemen and women than any other single horseman.

Ray likely just considered himself a horseman but John Maxwell suggests “to be a successful leader you must surround yourself with people who can respond to five key questions”.

• Do they display exemplary character in everything they do?
• Do they bring complementary gifts to the table?
• Do they hold a strategic position and have influence within the organization?
• Do they add value to the organization and to the leader?
• Do they positively affect other members of the inner circle?

These kind of people flocked to Ray, spawning decades of horse people willing to let the horse’s perspective be held in high regard. Ray has clearly demonstrated he created an inner circle that many top executives would envy.

Displaying integrity in all he did, Ray offered the most humble of gifts to every horse human combination he encountered, respect. Ray was able to see the inherit talent in a horse when the owner couldn’t, and an argument was never personal. It wasn’t about you, it was about the horse.

Ray has been a part of my leadership and horsemanship journey. He helped me understand like the reins we hold in our hands connecting to the two most sensitive parts of the horse human team. The responsibility we are given in leading others represents the most fragile part of the organization.

The Bigger Picture

“For us to make sense of something it has to fit with what we already believe to be true or the bigger picture.”1

For some that truth is horses are dangerous, for others they are an icon of beauty and freedom. Horses touch our emotions like few concepts or experiences can.

Experiential education is a way to extend truths and engage emotions in learning by doing. The premise, get people out of their comfort zone to access emotions and the corresponding problem solving skills that rarely are generated through reading or listening. Experiences familiar to enhancing leadership learning or team interaction are ropes courses and rafting. Working with a horse represents yet one more option, the key difference being horses introduce the aspect of free will.

A leader must continually manage interpretations and perceptions of both external and internal influences. While height, a rock face or rapids may be a metaphor for the challenges of the workplace, reaction to the obstacle determines the stress we put ourselves in and ultimately the outcome.

As a prey animal the horse’s will is to survive, to do that they are keenly aware of their environment. The metaphor of the horse in leadership, team or change management learning represents the multiplicity of outcomes. Unlike a rope that will hold despite demonstrated fear, a horse may not. It is the relationship you build and the emotional intelligence that you demonstrate that determines the result.

The Equine Guided Education Association holds an annual conference in Valley Ford, California. This year I had the privilege of presenting an example of the work The Natural Leader offers. The focus of the presentation was to demonstrate how horses support emotionally intelligent learning. The Big Picture provides a three-dimensional perspective on the attributes of awareness of self and others.

The Big Picture brilliantly demonstrates how horses quickly reflect our emotions. Observers are given a glimpse as to how emotion and intention might be perceived by others through our actions.

Like any new leader, as I walked through a different herd awareness was on high. When my actions began to demonstrate negative energy and the emotions of anger, disgust or fear the impact on the horses was powerful. My energy represented how we can be so wrapped up in our own thoughts that we can’t see when our actions are perceived differently by others. Inadvertently sending the wrong message.

As I talked through the objectives of the activity bringing my energy down to acknowledge the presence of others and my actions demonstrated the emotions of interest and acceptance. The horses immediately reflected the change and were willing to not only engage but were prepared to accept me.

The Big Picture activity has always brought to attention some of the most meaningful discussion and memorable moments in our programs. Developed from the concepts outlined in the 2001 article The Work of Leadership, the activity offers participants the opportunity to view interaction of the herd before they get into the midst, or as Heifitz & Laurie suggest on to the dance floor.

As a leader we must not only face the external challenges but our own internal ones. Developing our emotional intelligence through active and reflective practice helps us respond better when the stakes are high. By recognizing when and how our emotions are demonstrated through our actions we inspire the will in others.

1. Bushe, Gervase, Clear Leadership

The Emotional Roller Coaster

If a year could be captured by an image, 2008 would be a roller coaster.

Political, social or financial, it was a year of emotion. With stories of fear leading in the news, managing reaction and creating hope in 2009 will be the greatest challenge. Emotion, reaction and risk go hand-in-hand. If leadership is defined by a willingness to take risks, then 2009 is the year of opportunity.

The good news is, as we get older we also get wiser, and we learn that we can balance emotion and reason to manage risk. Our Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, is what assists us here. Not to be confused with our IQ or cognitive intelligence, which is pretty much set by age 17, emotional intelligence is something we can bank on improving as we get older. Ron Short succinctly defines emotional intelligence as “The ability to be aware of our emotions and manage them effectively” and “The ability to relate with others in effective ways.”1

While IQ may be a necessary foundation for being able to develop and interpret your EQ, emotional intelligence isn’t a skill gained through reading. It is developed through experiencing the actions, the emotions and the decisions. Emotional intelligence is about developing the “short-term, tactical, “dynamic” skills that can be brought into play as the situation warrants.” 2

Our greatest gains in developing our emotional intelligence happen when we step outside our comfort zone. As some of you have experienced risk and emotion are inextricably linked when it comes to working with horses, that is also what makes them perfect for leadership awareness learning.

Time and again I am experiencing that with Rhys. I have previously written of a tumble off of Rhys, well the whole story is a concussion and cracked vertebrae. So yes, I see a bit more risk in riding him. That is where my problems lie, you see as my mirror he is also reflecting my emotions. If fear surfaces, I no longer can be effective in communicating with him.

I’ve seen similar debilitating emotions show up through the simple act of meeting a horse, deciding to make that next career move or having that uncomfortable conversation. What I recognize is that something that sounds simple is not necessarily easy when the action is outside of your typical comfort zone. Learning to recognize the emotions that show up for you and how you want to reflect them based on knowledge and skill you already possess will help determine what actions define your next step.

Regardless of what 2009 has in store for each of us we can only manage how we respond and react to the opportunities presented. Leadership is about managing the emotional roller coaster we find ourselves on – whether it is a ride we choose or one that shows up.

1. R. Short, Learning in Relationships
2. S.J, Stein, H.E.Book, The EQ Edge

Can you walk the talk? by Manyan Wall

In the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s search for innovative learning for our New Wave Leadership Development Program, I was given the opportunity to attend Leadership: From Horse Sense to People Smarts offered through the University of Calgary. The synopsis suggested “gain insight into your leadership skills through hands on activities with a horse”. I was excited and at the same time curious to find out how a horse will help with my leadership development.

The day began with an introduction of fellow participants. We all had different reasons for being there, I was interested in exploring my leadership capabilities, another participant wanted to know how to better handle her staff. We were than introduced to our own horse to work with, I had the privilege of working with Maddison, a beautiful white mare. Not having much experience with horses, I was a bit intimidated by the fact she was ten times my size. Which really made me wonder, “Why in the world would Maddison want to follow me, let alone see me as her leader?”

My first task sounded simple enough, take Maddison for a walk. I quickly found out that if a horse does not want to move, no amount of pulling or pleading would change that. Frustrated by the motionless horse and myself, one of the assistants asked me, “So what do you think you might try?” I stood there dumbfounded, I didn’t know. “Do you know where you are going?”, she asks. I really did not know where I wanted to take Maddison, I just wanted to get her moving. There I realized my problem, would a colleague or staff want to take directions from me if I didn’t know where I was going?

Amazingly, once I focussed on a clear direction, we began to execute it. She walked half way and stopped. “Okay, what’s wrong now? I have a clear path, let’s get there”. All the success I felt in the last 10 seconds had disappeared. I turned to look at Maddison and tried to encourage her to move on, she wasn’t interested. I was then asked, “How do you think you can motivate Maddison to move?” I had to put my thinking cap on. Can’t bribe her with food, maybe I should try a different direction and keep it interesting for her. After many painful moments of trying to figure out how to effectively communicate with Madison and to keep her motivated, we finally made it to the barn door across the arena. We did not achieve this through a straight line, we zigzagged and circled the arena, but we achieved our goal.

This really put into perspective the challenges many project managers face in executing a task. We may have an idea of how and when we want to achieve our goals, however, others may not accept our methods. Rather than pulling and tugging, we need to be creative and accept the notion that every individual have their ways of doing things, and we can still achieve the same results.

There is not a better teacher than a horse who will provide real time input and feedback that is 100% honest and immediate. For those who cringe at the thought of performance reviews, you may not like what the horse will tell you. But once you realize that you have done it right, there is no better reward and satisfaction. Believe me, Maddison gave me many confused looks and was not cooperative at times. It wasn’t till we developed a mutual trust, and I was confident and clear in my focus, that she accepted me as her leader. Of the many lessons Maddison taught me that day, one thing is for certain, when working and dealing with people, you CAN’T FAKE GENUINE.

Horses naturally seek a strong, confident leader…. Horses are a perfect metaphor for learning about people…