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For me, it is easy to get back in the saddle, it is however, more challenging to get back at the keyboard! The first half of the year for The Natural Leader has been brilliantly busy and the arrival of spring all consumed with projects that waited for six months. Early spring is the bug free season so time to catch up on those long rides!
The next conversation about leadership learning from a horse is with Luree Williamson, CEO Agriculture for Life. Luree’s life has long been influenced by horses. Her current role is dedicated to bringing a better understanding and appreciation of agriculture and it’s connection to all Albertan’s through the delivery of agriculture education and farm safety programs.
20 years ago October, Allison Wright handed over her Stampede Crown and began a career with the Calgary Stampede. Starting in the accounting department, she got a grasp on the numbers of running a year round facility and The Greatest Show on Earth. Over the years Allison has held a number of positions in Agriculture Programming and now heads up the Mid-way portfolio. She describes her responsibility as “The guest experience from Gates to Corndogs and everything in between.” For ten days each year Allison’s team grows from 4 to over 800. How do you manage the commitment of that size? Well Allison believes you need to be an adrenalin junkie and love chaos.
Being Present in a Relationship
From saddling Rhys to regaining consciousness on the ground, I had no memory of what happened.
I was asking the same questions over and over, symptoms of a serious concussion.
In emergency, that diagnosis also included hairline vertebra fractures.
Had I landed differently this could have been a whole different story.
Ever had that conversation that could have gone better? What you could have done differently or should have said that just might have changed the outcome?
or as a fine horseman once suggested being able to recognize: “What happened, before what happened, happened?” ¹
Well, it happened! Fortunately the spring dirt is relatively soft so with a quick scan that all body parts were intact, I picked myself up, gathered up the reins of the horse still staring in mortal fear at the object and got ready to get back on. The older I get the more I wish I’d listened to what the horse had been telling me before they had to scream.
You are buckled in, you notice the flight attendant going through the motions of the safety demonstration. The short delay announcement frustrates you and yet you find yourself gripping the armrest as if the plane relied on this very effort to lift it off the tarmac.
Our irrational fear of flying was the topic of Michael Enright’s radio interview with Author and First Officer Patrick Smith. Smith suggests the fear is normal and natural, admitting there is something about being thousands of feet above the ground moving at hundreds of miles an hour that generates fear for anyone from passenger to pilot. As inherently unsafe as it may sound, flying has been engineered to be the very opposite.
Enright’s questions clearly reflected his own fear of flying, suggesting Smith’s version of a near miss sound more like a near hit. Smith offers that our fear of flying is more likely the result of an over active imagination, interpreting what we hear from the media rather than one based on facts.Smith dubs this the PEF or Passenger Embellishment Factor. The PEF exaggerates a 20 foot drop in altitude to thousands, a 20 degree bank turns into 60 and a lightening strike becomes a ball of light dancing down the aisle.
PEF easily translates to the Participant Embellishment Factor in The Natural Leader programs. To assess people’s comfort level before entering the arena we always ask. “On a scale of one to ten, one being fearful, ten meaning you might have experience with horses and are quite comfortable with the prospects of the day. What is your comfort level working with a horse?” The number of zero’s and negative numbers we have encountered of late is somewhat unsettling.
What I have noticed, rarely is there a bad experience to go with that fear, the horse simply represents an unknown. So the idea has worked them into such a state they hadn’t slept or were physically ill at the prospect of the day. Their imagination has filled in the blanks and created the “What if” scenarios for this large and powerful animal.
While the work with horses allows people to experience Leadership moments at the threshold of their comfort zone, fear can get in the way of that opportunity. Our goal is to ensure each person is supported through their learning experience in a manner that suits them best. The sessions often give participants a better understanding of when their fears of failing, or falling, are holding them back as leaders.
I have gained a lot of experience on managing fear around horses. You can’t simply tell someone “Don’t be afraid”, however we can provide information that is relevant and immediate, setting a goal that is attainable. So we start with breathing.
When we are fearful we tend hold our breath in anticipation. Our focus of attention is on the future not the present so we are rarely able to respond to the moment. Focusing on breathing helps people remain in the present so they can recognize and assess the physiological response they are experiencing. Once they notice what is happening in their body they are more likely to be able to name it and therefore manage the emotions associated with the feeling.
One reference tool we have used in our programs is The Awareness Wheel, adapted by Jacques & Associates from the work of Miller, Wackman, Nunnally and Saline. The tool helps bring forward a dialogue on what has generated a reaction or an emotion so we might be more thoughtful in our response. Getting participants to focus on their breath helps them become more present to what might be actually happening in the present.
So the next time you find yourself gripping the armrest like everyone’s life depends on it, remember to breathe. Relax your body and your mind so you can actually enjoy the flight.
CBC Radio Interview >>http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/The+Sunday+Edition/Segments/ID/2416721253/
Photo: Oliver getting his Ya Ya’s out before I get on!
I have learned how complicated simple can be. Now well past ninety days, we continue one step at a time working through the Tarp Challenge. Gabe remains hesitant about the blue tarp, but what has changed it is that it is no longer about getting him used to the tarp. It is now about how I offer the information and allow him the opportunity to interpret my intention. To a horse everything means something and nothing, means nothing. We are getting closer to nothing.
Horsemanship is a journey and each day with Gabe, each session with people I learn more about how I present myself. Through recent programs leadership presence has been the focus of conversation. We begin each session asking what would each individual like to get out of their day, defining a goal for themselves. We hear a lot about what they would like to see in their staff, changes in how their communication is received or thoughts that relate to getting others to perform their best, for some it is a challenge to get them to see the role they play in that outcome.
It takes seconds for a horse to figure out a person’s “I statement”. However, having the human articulate it plainly and clearly is another story. When they find it, it is gold for us in the arena.
To be honest it really doesn’t matter whom I pair with who or what activities we have planned for a sessions. The horses simply do what they do and the people will say the the most amazing things. I so love to hear it when someone simply states what they need to do differently as a result of the interactions with the horse. What was challenging for them to articulate in the classroom rolls off their tongue in the arena.
I am so proud of my horses. They do not just tolerate another human on the end of the lead line, but they share with them something that becomes so profound. I know that person is leaving with a whole new perspective on what leadership presence means to them.
Just as it is no longer about getting Gabe used to the commotion going on around him, but rather about how “I can support and help Gabe understand that he can trust me through whatever may be happening around us.” I still want Gabe to accept a blue tarp, but it is what I am willing to do in order for him to get there that makes the difference.
What’s in it for me? Immense satisfaction on what I can accomplish if I set my heart and mind to something.
We live on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, the point where the foothills turns into the flat lands. With it’s ready made windbreak of poplars, spruce and caragana hedge an old farmstead became our home. I often say there is nothing to block the view–a statement that translates to nothing to stop the wind. The wind can be relentless.
In the still of a spring evening bird song and frogs are the main chorus but as you move toward the herd the steady slap of the tail and stomp of feet means mosquitoes have arrived. After 11 years I realize there is a darn good side to that ever present wind. Between hill and sky, there can be a LOT of water. So when the wind blows it provides that point in the day you can focus and the horse can relax, the wind offers relief.
The Natural Leader programs are designed to provide a different perspective on leading self or others. I have to admit sometimes the questions that come forward catch me off guard, one did just that in a recent session. The individual was wondering what to do when all else appeared to be stacked against them. The first question that came to mind to begin the dialogue was “Is there another way you could look at the problem?”
We often have participants who are looking for a fix, that one idea that will transform their leadership journey. The horses provide that different perspective on how they show up as individuals and the expectations they place on self. If the horses had taught me nothing else, the one learning horses are brilliant at sharing. You can only control and change how you respond and react to see a different outcome.
The same question came to mind as I headed down the road, glad for the reprieve from mosquitos the wind offered. When I could see the benefit the wind offered rather than loath it, I loved it. “It was the question that was needing to be asked but was waiting to be said.”
Not sure why it’s taken me so long to find the upside of the wind. I guess needing to see something from a different perspective is something you never run out of.
In full disclosure, that is not a picture from where I sit, but a view not too far to the west of us.
“most of us are taught to think of experience as coming from the outside in, psychology and neuroscience shows fairly dramatically that experience mainly comes from the inside out. We each created our own experience and therefore, people involved in the same event can have very different observations, thoughts, feelings and wants about that event.”1 Gervase Bushe
Over the past year I’ve had the good opportunity to work with a number of teams from the oil and gas industry. All the organizations they work for state they operate in a culture of safety, but watching people in action gives you a better sense of compliance versus a safety mindset. Safety isn’t about what not to do, but rather about how to do something safely.
Working from the “inside out”2 is a concept that shows up very clearly when working with a horse. “Never walk behind a horse.” advice almost everyone seems to be able to provide, but a perspective that relates more to how we walk behind a horse than whether we should. Evolution has provided horses with panoramic vision so their range of sight is almost 360 degrees, they absolutely can see you. Acutely aware a horse reads their measure of safety not only from the physical surroundings but through the actions of others, so how we walk behind them does make a difference.
While it isn’t always easy to tell where a horse is looking, their eyes are on the side of their head, a good indicator of where their focus of attention is are their ears. A horse’s body language will indicate their level of concern, in effect they let us know exactly what they are thinking.
In comparison our physiology restricts our peripheral vision limiting what we see to that which is in front of us and we also often falsely believe that we are good at keeping our thoughts to ourselves. A truth that clearly defines itself when we consciously prepare for the “what if’s” about working around a horse, the more likely we unknowingly wear what we are thinking. Horses have taught me a lot about safety.
While Bushe is exploring experience through the lens of the organization his findings of workplace experience is no different that what horsemanship suggests, our thoughts influence our actions. How we respond to what is presented, or how we interpret our safety, the impact is the same, others see what we miss and actions can easily be misinterpreted.
Just as Bushe suggests the more conscious we are of our own personal safety, the more likely our thoughts translate into unintended actions, perhaps we get hesitant, move slower or have a rigidness to our posture. While we may be thinking “I’m just being careful.” our body language changes the experience for someone else.
Telling someone what not to do without information about why is no different then telling someone to not be afraid around the horse. A useless piece of advice without the why. Information helps us develop the awareness we need to be safe through our actions. The more open the dialogue is around safety versus a checklist of what not to do the more likely people gain comfort and competence to create the culture of safety.
The colder weather also means, the section of cultivated land across the road becomes my outdoor riding arena. There is little to stop the view, stubble rows and piles of chaf become landmarks to weave through and go around the beauty is I can ride without the extreme hazard of snow covered holes.
Despite the number of times we may have crossed the road – there is always opportunity for something interesting to happen. On this particular day the land and sky were a seamless light blue grey. It gives you a feeling of floating as if in some middle world, at least it felt that way until a large truck broke the horizon 3 or 4 kilometers away.
The minute change in scenery interrupted the flow and Sydney became fixated on the distant object inching its way through the grey. The seemingly insignificant altered our ride from a pleasant amble to one where I had to quickly establish a common focus. What I could assume was simply explaining it was only a truck wouldn’t be enough for her. I had to be able to communicate in a way that had meaning to her, otherwise there was little between us and home to slow the energy of my fondly named, TankGirl. I needed to get her focused, engaged, relaxed and thinking!
You might remember me suggesting that horses are not good with change. The instinctual response to change is perceived threat. Sydney’s ONLY thought at that point was get back to the safety of the herd. I had to establish a comfort zone for her where I was her support in our herd of two. Circles are a good way to get your horse focused and relaxed while keeping their feet moving and mind engaged. So circles in the snow it became.
Winter snow offers a brilliant tool for measuring progress. Our fist attempts were anything but circular, as we both started to focus on what the outcome could be the track in the snow began to round and narrow. The truck continued to inch it’s way along the five kilometers of the horizon but I now had Sydney’s attention focused on the task at hand. As I gave her something to do it, a purpose, that in turn offered relief from the pending “threat” the change on the horizon presented. It helped us both regain confidence.
While the actual change minuscule, the perceived change and emotional impact was huge.
As everything about horsemanship and leadership is connected, the experience had me thinking about the chaos that change can inflict on the workplace. Like a horse we are naturally wired to react and resist change. The truck on the horizon demonstrated how easily a very minor change without the right communication can get blown out of proportion triggering the fright and flight mode in an organization.
No matter how many times I’ve encountered a tense moment on horseback I have to consciously remind myself that I have the experience, I have the skill and I have the knowledge to handle the situation. Each time the connection is easier, but like leadership the challenge with horsemanship is we can absolutely know what we need to do, but we must remember to carry it in how we respond. It is our actions that influence the change we would like to see.
It is that conscious awareness that will determine the outcome. I have to admit it is easier said than done, but with practice it starts to flow faster and most importantly when I encounter a change I really don’t know how to manage. I am more than willing to engage the experience of others. It just makes sense.