My drama queen? A 16 year old female, the key difference just might be, my drama queen is a horse. Despite the years of experience, wisdom and leadership skill I have gained, Zoe is very good at sucking me into her emotional vortex. Always ready to teach me something new, Zoe pointed out my default to manager when she most needed, a confident and clear leader.
It was a familiar ride down a road we have traveled a thousand times, yet every bush, sound and falling leaf became a serious distraction. I was so busy managing all the “Ya But’s” and “OMG’s”, we surely would be in a froth by the time we hit the small stand of aspens a kilometer into the ride.
As the emotion of frustration rose in me – it dawned on me, Zoe was doing exactly what she ALWAYS did, and I was responding just as I always had. I was so busy managing and worrying about another exhausting ride that I was blind to what I was doing in the moment.
Thinking back on all the clinics, horsemanship tips and leadership knowledge I have gained over the years, many things came to mind. The thought that rang true “the horse will keep you busy if you don’t keep them busy”. It was my job to get her focused – I had to have a clear vision for both of us. I had to give her something more compelling to help her be successful. As I started asking questions, the frantic jig turned into sidepassing, backing and repeating patterns. We stopped, teetered back and rolled over on the haunches each task bringing us ever closer to that terrifying stand of trees. The occasional distraction reappeared, but when her head bobbed up and neck stiffened I found something new for her and we started the whole process again.
The ride that began feeling like I needed every ounce of my strength, was changing. As Zoe started to see a purpose to my requests she engaged with her responsibilities. She started finding the answers to my questions with less and less effort. The ride became less like work and more enjoyable, for both of us. We were beginning to dance to the same tune.
In the midst of that foreboding stand of trees I could feel her look to me for direction. With the lightest go forward request, we moved off. From the road we traveled onto the quarter section stubble field. We circled at a walk, trot and a lope, the open space no longer daunting. She was soft, we backed turned and then the biggest reward of all, we walked home, loose reins swinging in time with her stride.
As a manager she had kept me busy, as a leader I was able to help her focus and together we accomplished far more. Here’s to recognising the drama queen on your team can actually help you be a better leader!
My work is focused on being effective. Whether I am starting a colt, coaching a student of horsemanship or facilitating a corporate retreat I try to be effective with my communication so I see a demonstrated change in a behaviour. Effective ranges from saying something in a different way to nothing at all. I hope throughout the experience the horse, the human or the team also see me as someone they wouldn’t mind spending time with.
The single greatest challenge I have encountered with people working to either improve their horsemanship or leadership capacity is helping them develop a clear understanding of the difference between natural and effective, nice versus respected and assertive instead of aggressive. All basically the same thing from three different perspectives.
Many adherents to natural horsemanship have difficulty discerning between nice and effective methods of applying that philosophy. Natural for some reason has been translated into nice, soft and quiet and their horse literally loves them to death. When the human begins to recognize what they are doing doesn’t appear to be working they continue to think in the same way so seek out a “natural gentle” gimmick of which there are thousands. The end result: yet another way to not be clear on what you are asking nor getting the respect required.
In horsemanship an intention has to translate through our body language for a single clear result. Sometimes we just need to speak, non-verbally, a little louder in order for our cues to be perfectly clear and then we can go back to a whisper. While we may talk about partnerships with our horse in reality we are looking at a benevolent dictatorship at best – we want the horse to want to excel and want to be with us, but sometimes our leadership style requires that we stand firm until we see the intended result.
Which is why for me there is such a direct correlation between the qualities required for both a good horseman and a good leader. There are few, if any, shortcuts to the ideal image of you and your horse or you and your team. I’ve listened to so many people talk about how well they get along with everyone at work, in one breath and then express complete exhaustion in the next. Sometimes being plain nice isn’t enough, it requires that you be effective.
For leadership to be effective it may mean changing how you approach a situation, employing a different leadership style. Being nice about a difficult conversation is rarely effective as chances are you won’t say what needs to be said. What I continue to marvel at is as a person realizes the horses behaviour will adapt to what they present, as they become more effective, they begin to see they are the source of the solution. To use a well worn phrase, they feel empowered to make a change in their own leadership style in order to be more effective in what they do.
There are many great reference tools out there books, programs, coaches find what helps get you unstuck so you can see a change in your habits and the behaviours of others – so you don’t feel that people too are loving you to death
At one time it was common to refer to breaking a colt. Many believed that you had to break the colt’s spirit by trapping, restraining and making them to comply to your requests. Fortunately we have learned there are easier and safer ways to work with horses. Today you are more likely to hear someone refer to starting a colt, words that better illustrate the positive changes in behaviour we wish to create as we develop a relationship.
The saying “make the right choice comfortable” is a reflection of our learning. When we apply that concept in working with a colt, we adapt our behaviours to what we know about horses so being with us becomes a good experience and accelerates a horse’s learning.
While we share the same fight or flight responses of the horse connected to the amygdala part of the brain, the same does not apply in our awareness of subtle changes in our environment. Unfortunately, it is our greater capacity to reason in the higher functions of the brain that get in our way. We tend to clump detail into broad strokes often creating something far greater than it is. Rather than seeing a series of connected events or signals we jump to the end result conjuring up endless scenarios in the process, letting the ‘what ifs’ create a noise that drains our energy and drowns the opportunity for insight and awareness.
Insight is the space required to understand, decide, recall, memorize and inhibit, in order to make a change in our behaviour. It is the quiet place where we hear the signal above the noise and see the opportunity in change.
David Rock expands on the concept of why positive change is hardest in his webcast “The New Science of Change – Connecting Leadership Development and Neuroscience.” Rock defines thinking as energy intensive and suggests our brain’s intrinsic goal is to avoid effort, the reason why we so quickly connect to what is wrong with change, we don’t have to think.
Thinking requires effort, effort equates to discomfort, discomfort produces a level of uncertainty, uncertainty reduces our capacity to reason and tends to steer us back toward what is certain. It is this chain of action, reaction that makes it difficult for us to accept change, even when change is for the best.
Rock suggests we can rewire the circuits of our brain if we take just 10 seconds a day to focus on a positive outcome. Basically the same concept we apply in working with a horse – breaking new information down into small repeatable bites. Asking for one thing at a time building on competence until actions become behaviours.
It is these small bites of information we introduce when making the parallel between horsemanship, leadership, communication or team learning. Because the horse so quickly mirrors our actions and reactions they become the perfect measure of how easily or how difficult we make adapting to change. In working with a horse an individual often discovers that quiet space for insight when they start to become aware on how their actions impact another being. Insight that makes room for positive change.