A Thread of Influence

No I have never owned a horse named Lucky, though I often say “I am lucky with the parents I ended up with.” Lucky because one has little choice in their parents.

Another saving piece of luck might well have been horses, a thread of interest that has woven through my life. Despite growing up in the city my mother’s stories suggest I have been passionate about horses longer than I remember. After years of pleading, at age ten my first horse entered my life, Joey was love at first sight.

Many years have gone by since that passionate embrace, and horses continue to be a saving grace and influence in my life. Through horses I have learned more about myself then any personality profiling tool could offer. It was however a comment by a peer following a recent session that has me thinking on where my other influences come from. She immediately recognized my horsemanship influence but inquired as to who I modelled my leadership and facilitation skills after.

The question stumped me. While I have participated in many programs watching and listening closely to the facilitators “Did I reflect any of them?” to be honest I don’t think so. But the question has reminded me of the leaders I have had the opportunity to work with and the qualities I admired in them.

There are two individuals who come to mind when I think of leadership influence. The first is Rick, from the planning group at Parks Canada. While he could sit in a meeting, seemingly uninterested or unengaged I have never yet met another person who could summarize and clarify a discussion better than he. All the while he appeared to me, to be working on something unrelated, he was obviously capturing highlights and points of passion that carried through the discussion. When he spoke it was if he had summarized a two hour discussion in five or six key points reflecting back to the group what was collectively said, felt or omitted. He was brilliant in validating what was said to get a group to leave completely fulfilled and ready to move forward.

A second leader of influence in my career would be Dave who I worked with in the Hot Pools Business Unit at Parks Canada. His impact through The Natural Leader programs is reflected when we inquire about the qualities of a leader you most admire. Inevitably the discussion turns to remembering those individuals by how they have made you feel. Dave was one of those people whose skill truly lies in helping you see the best in what you already have. Dave was amazing at offering the right words when you were uncertain as to whether you had the knowledge to move forward. It was as if he simply saw you by your ability, what you could achieve and had yet learn.

I have had the opportunity to work with numerous other individuals who have given me reference points for what not to do in a leadership role and they stand in stark contrast to those I’ve mentioned. Experiences you don’t care to repeat but my interactions with them have certainly allowed for the empathy required when working with participants in our programs who might be in similar circumstances.

It was the sage wisdom of a business mentor who painted the first picture for me on The Natural Leader programs. She suggested that a good program is like a three legged stool miss one element and the stool won’t stand. She applauded the idea, provided suggestions for honing the content and encouraged me to continue to grow as a facilitator. Since that conversation I have had the great opportunity to work with some excellent facilitators and each and every session I learn and grow from these encounters. Do I reflect them? In some small way I hope so.

So for that question, thank you. I have had the great fortune to have met many wonderful people through my career and like the parents I ended up with lucky to have learned what I did from each of these individuals.

Synchronicity

Synchronicity, the experience of two or more unrelated events occuring together in a meaningful manner, happened.

Two recent but separate events connected a few key concepts to a problem I am facing. The first a talk by Judge John Reilly on his book Bad Medicine a reflection of his experience and struggle for justice in a First Nations community, followed by the CBC show Ideas on the drive home.

Judge Reilly spoke of his awakening to the concept of world view throught the tragedy that was occurring in the interpretation of the euro-centric justice system on First Nations communities. While Indigenous people make up 3% of the population of Canada, they represent over 70% of those incarcerated. It was his new found awareness that caused him to challenge and change the justice system for the First Nations community west of Calgary.

The CBC radio segment Ideas, presented a series of life stories by adults with Asperger syndrome, a form of high functioning autism, and their struggle to fit into a societal view of norms. An “Aspy”, as they referred to themselves, process information differently. An example one speaker gave: referring to the noise the fan was making. For many, a noise that wasn’t noticed until pointed out, for a few something they have been concentrating hard to block out so they could focus on the speaker. He suggested an Aspy spends their whole life trying to block out all the other stimuli around them, an exhausting effort.

While one event spoke of the justice system, the other about a physiological or psychological condition both brought together the concept of worldview. The synchronicity, two perspectives offering something unique for a horse I am working with.

Stella has been here since October. What began as a nursing project to heal a badly injured leg has developed into the study of an ultra-sensitive horse. I have had the great pleasure of starting numerous horses now and believe I have come to understand what to look for in a colt as they are developing. Stella (think of the play A Streetcar Named Desire) is not like any of the other horses I have started. While I have had a few suggestions that could profile her according to certain traits, consider a Myers-Briggs for horses, in my view what gets in the way as once defined, the label creates expectations and it becomes easier to broad stroke what may show up.

I believe there are huge advantages to people becoming aware of and reflecting on their own natural tendencies through the various assessment tools. Awareness is the first step in challenging ourselves to step outside of our comfort zone, I have come to understand a lot about myself through these exercises. The profiling tools also help us recognise and respond appropriately to these identified traits in others. The challenge in doing the same thing to a horse is they have no opportunity to respond to that label. They are simply the way they are.

The concept of worldview is not new to me, but the other night I had a whole new understanding as to what it means to me through the work I do. Stella is and thinks like a horse, but rather than one who starts to see a pattern after say two or three times, she will continue to see something different in each effort.

My favourite quote by Temple Grandin one that has gained a whole new meaning with Stella is “we may see the world in color, animals see the world in detail.” What is just a flag, a stick or a rope after a few tries with most horses – is something completely different and still poses a threat to Stella after many. Like an Aspy I believe Stella simply processes the information differently than other horses so she is reminding me yet one more time each horse is an individual. While I remain the same in how I might believe I am delivering the message, the weather might be different, another person present, the laundry on the line all represent stimuli she is processing while I am trying to get her to focus.

As I have added or subtracted elements with Stella I have learned to make no assumptions, take each effort as a new try to help her through each change. The more attention I also pay to the details the quicker we get from one step to the next. While it may have been a different label that caught my attention it was the concept of worldview that changed what I too began to notice. Stella requires that I remained focused on the moment, not distracted by what might show up and flexible to adapt to what does.

Watch Judge John Reilly’s talk “My Aboriginal Education” on TedxCalgary

A letter to the editor of Eclectic Horseman

sent back in March – but recently published in the May / June issue of Eclectic Horseman

While we may dream of riding the range, roping and doctoring cattle or making the perfect bridle horse, the side of the range we rarely fantasize about are the -30 mornings when you actually have to be outside. Frozen water tanks, tractors that refuse to start, hydraulic fluid as thick as molasses, fingers that don’t work, numb feet and so many layers of clothes everything feels like you are moving in slow motion. As March arrives it’s hard to believe that spring is suppose to be here in less than three weeks.

Now I realise that not everyone has to live with the same frigid temperatures, but from what I hear, this year, winter seems to have all but covered North America. Mother nature simply doesn’t seem to be holding up her end of the deal. Regardless of the weather cows will be calving and there will be many hardy souls checking to ensure the latest arrival has a chance. The cowboy image is more than a heated indoor arena and the conveniences we have grown so accustomed to.

A good number of us reading Eclectic Horseman spend more of our time riding a desk chair than our horse, even fewer who work with cattle on a regular basis. Statistics suggest about 80% of horse owners board. For those of us who don’t, we try to manage horse time along with work commitments, commuting and keeping up with friends and family that have little to no interest in our equine passion.

I am fortunate enough to look upon participating in a horsemanship clinic as professional development. While I hone my horsemanship skills I am always seeking out tidbits of information that apply outside of the arena. What I am finding is that cowboy wisdom applies to more than just handling horses or cattle. Pretty much every clinic I’ve attended there is as much talk about the person solving their problem as there is about managing a horse problem.

While there may be a plethora of buckaroos and cowboys decked out with all the right stuff, Buck Brannaman couldn’t have said it better “Horsemanship is not a wardrobe issue.” What we are learning is not so much about the outside of the horse but what motivates the inside. There is always talk about understanding the horse, getting to the mind, firing up the natural curiosity and their inherit desire to get along. Everything that we are learning about our relationship with our horse applies outside the arena.

Horsemanship is actually about becoming better human beings. We have an incredible capacity to change things and what I’m seeing is how horses can change people.

“When life feels like it’s going western, there is no shame in grabbing on to the saddle horn” Cowboy Wisdom

How Hard Can It Be?

That had to be my thought as I picked the colt out of the pen, a nice looking, well put together red dun. I was told he was maybe three or four but there was no touching him to confirm such a guess. I paid for a “belt” according to the register receipt. We drove him through the loading chute and into the trailer, he was now my project.

Getting him out of the trailer and into a stall was also relatively easy – open one door, then the other and in a flash he was in the barn. In a matter of hours his world had been turned upside down, the horse was literally vibrating in the stall. My expectation was let him calm down, feed him, shower him with love and surely he will come around.

After a couple of days in the stall it was not getting less dangerous to handle him, he made it clear he had no intention of letting me near. The slightest move on my part ran through him like a bolt of electricity. Having started numerous younger horses I admit maybe this one was a little more than I had anticipated and prepared for. Not a fan of keeping a horse in a box I decided to put him into the smaller paddock. With space to move he would not feel so trapped so connecting should be easier and safer.

What followed was a series of days where I had to concoct ingenious ways to get him from one location to the other – I still couldn’t touch him. I also began to fully appreciate why one should design their pens, paddocks and round pens on paper first. It was through this process that his name came to me – everything was about doing things in very small pieces, there was no rushing anything and giving him time to process requests was something I had to allow. He was the colour of peanut butter so Rhys’ pieces he became.

After a few days of panicked departures and abrupt turns he was starting to slow down, wait and look to me. I was not, after all, trying to kill him.

Years later we have come to an agreement and I admit it has not been an easy ride. I had to decide that one of us must change. Together we had a few really tough days, we both survived because I stopped worrying about failing. He still has his ya-buts, is quick to point out an inconsistency in my behaviour and finally is willing to give something an honest try. Rhys may not be able to hold it together through a new experience but he looks to me for the support and confidence he lacks.

My experience with Rhys is the perfect parallel to what starting a new business has been like. I took on something few would, started a process where my previous experience seemed all but irrelevant and suffered numerous bumps and bruises along the way. The learning I have gained from both is about me, how I manage change, approach adversity, develop a perspective on the odds, handle frustration or fear of failing.

Whether starting a new business or a horse they require tenacity, an unwavering belief you can learn something new, a steadfast willingness to learn from mistakes unyielding optimism and time. Neither are something you can short cut to the finish. Both are about developing awareness, relationships and trust. So I am thrilled to report like my experience with Rhys, The Natural Leader is doing better than ever this year.

“Emotional intelligence is not something we consider when things are going well but it is something we need when they are not.”

Keep your eye on the post

With spring comes change, the long awaited transformation from brown and white to green and fresh. It is a change that everyone easily adapts to: it is anticipated; expected and for the most part predictable.

Change is something we are not typically great at managing. Anything that requires we step outside the comfort zone of routine challenges our flexibility, tolerance and impulse control; in short a few key attributes of emotional intelligence (EQ).

Life tends to throw us a test when we least expect it. In the midst of anticipating the relief of spring, just days before a session, change happened. Cell phone in hand a woman ran a red light and totalled my truck. A replacement truck found for the day of the program, the weather couldn’t have been worse for hauling and the second planned trailer to move horses did not show up – despite those initial challenges we were able to run a full program by borrowing two additional horses from the stable I had leased; for all intensive purposes everything went well.

Then end of the day, Amy my little black paint mare with the blue eye, tried unsuccessfully to jump out of the pen she was in and seriously injured herself. After two weeks of constant care the prognosis was not good and the prospects of surgery slim so we had to make the decision to say goodbye. A three legged horse simply doesn’t get by.

Each incident in and of itself felt overwhelming, combined I do admit it has been a tough few weeks. I can’t say I have been the best at managing my own emotions when frustration, helplessness and all the what if I’d done this or that scenarios replay in my brain.

Of the many questions I have asked myself it was the observation by Temple Grandin that came to mind “we may see the world in color, animals see it in detail.” Despite all the experience of have gained in working with horses I still miss details a horse would not. One thing I will not overlook is how much horses have helped me in managing my emotions. Over the past few weeks the EQ competencies that have repeatedly surfaced speak to adaptability; flexibility and the most important optimism. Separating the emotions from the job at hand and making the required decisions is something leaders have to do on a regular basis. Which suggests to me an attribute which should be added to the list of competencies of emotional intelligence “what doesn’t kill you makes you grow stronger”.

Throughout this process of change many have been there to support me. As with the promise of spring so too have there been many signs of hope. After a quiet winter numerous program inquiries have come in, I am scheduled to present at three events in the coming months and I have met so many wonderful people who stepped in to help a stranger. Finding the silver lining of change is something we have to look for.

The photo is my favourite image of Amy doing her job. Teaching a future leader of the importance of focus, confidence and communication. When Cale passed the lead rope over to the next four year old in line at our family day event, he told him to “just look at the posts.”

“The only difference in an Extraordinary life and an ordinary one is the Extraordinary pleasures You find in ordinary Things” Veronique Vienne

Navigating Change

A polynesian mariner navigates the ocean by the clouds, the stars and the sound of the water on the hull of the boat. A horseman pays attention to the ears of the horse to know what to offer next and a CEO assesses the environment to gain information on how to lead an organisation. The mariner and horseman have developed a keen awareness for their surroundings, basing their next move on feel and experience. If only the signals were as clear for the leader!

In “Thoughts on Leadership Today…”. Laurie Maslak, Phd suggests “the Executive and Managers know all the right things to do, they have all been through extensive leadership development programs, but there’s little buy-in (to do the right things in practice)”. It does not appear to be a lack of good leaders, just a lot of good leaders doing bad things. Many offer a multitude of reasons for this: a persistent level of increased stress and growing workloads; working managers who don’t have anyone to delegate work to or continue to believe they can just do it faster; the economic and competitive market pressures; (and finally) the common complaint “there is no time to lead properly”

When people are overwhelmed a natural default is to focus on task versus strategy, a concept that NYTimes columnist, David Brook explored in his recent TedTalk. Brook offers that we have become very good at living by things we can measure such as tactics, skill and safety and not so great at talking about character, emotions and values. We are social animals so we reflect what is going on inside and outside of us but we can only manage what we recognise. He goes further to suggest that good decisions are emotionally based and that wisdom is a reflection of the unconscious mind and our ability to be sensitive, sympathetic and empathetic.

Just as Maslak observed, Brook believes we must get better at talking about what matters to us. We should feel as comfortable talking about love, passion and what inspires us as we do about spreadsheets, resources and markets. We look to those we admire for guidance because leadership “is a practice that requires vigilance, persistence and a constant awareness of self, others, and the environment. Leadership development is both an internal and an external process.”1

Like the mariner who listens to the water to recognise wave patterns or the horseman who spends years observing and working with horses to recognise how body language impacts the horse, leadership requires that we take a step back, spend time contemplating and look within. “Leadership, in its truest sense of the word, is both an internal and an external experience.”2 The rational part of our being sends us to courses, books and experts the imprecise art of leadership comes from within.

Just as the mariner was seeking safe passage for others, the horseman transforming a colt into a dependable riding horse. A leader must be aware of their emotional input and output in order for others to aspire to be their best.

1&2 – Excerpts from Thoughts on Leadership…Laurie Maslak PhD.
more on David Brooks TedTalk
Elizabeth Lindsey & The Ancestral voices of her past TedTalk