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…