July, 26, 2022

Unexpected leadership lessons

Unexpected Leadership Lessons

As a child I dreamt about owning my own pony. I would spend hours, rain, or shine, helping out at the local riding stables just in case I was allowed to ride. Every Christmas at the top of my Christmas list was, you guessed it, a pony, and every year my mum explained gently that Santa just didn’t have enough room on his sleigh for a pony this year. 

So many years later when I finally had the opportunity to own a horse I took it. The plan was that this was my downtime, my relaxation opportunity, those longed for moments I had dreamt about of heading out across the fields on a warm summer day, just me and my buddy. 

Well I have definitely achieved that childhood dream and have also had one of the greatest leadership learning opportunities of my life, which is saying something after a lifetime of delivering and taking part in leadership development activities. 

So how did a horse teach me about leadership?

Comfort Zone – So my dream had come true, I was finally, only 30 years after first asking to be one, a horse owner! From Day 1 I found myself in unchartered territory, I discovered very quickly how little I knew and how much other people and my new horse expected me to know…I was definitely outside my comfort zone! Each day brought a new challenge, I found myself experiencing physical anxiety in anticipation of going to the stables as I never knew what to expect and how my horse might behave today and who would be watching and judging. I was scared…scared of failing, scared of not being good enough, scared of hurting myself, someone else or my horse and mostly scared that this thing I had longed for just wasn’t within my capability. 

What were my options – simply give up or keep going. I came close to giving up on more than one occasion, but in the end I kept going however I changed my way of looking at the situation. Rather than ‘pretending’ I was OK I accepted that I had placed myself so far out of my comfort zone that I was paralysed by fear, and alone. So I stepped back into my comfort zone, I reached out to those that could help me, I admitted to myself and then to others that I had many things to learn, I stopped expecting myself to be the expert all the time and allowed myself to be the pupil as well. 

Over time I recognised that my comfort zone had grown in a healthy way, which enabled me to push the edges of it even further, to try new and challenging things and enjoy it! I had built my network to include people who I can call upon for general advice and those who I trusted with my more private questions and inner thoughts, and most of all I learnt that pretending to be OK is a very lonely place. 

So how is this relevant to leadership? In two ways – firstly as the leader yourself and secondly how you lead others. Starting with you, do you place unnecessary pressure on yourself to always be stretching yourself, to have the answers even if you have never experienced whatever it is before. Humility and the ability to ask for help as a leader is paramount to wellbeing and to personal growth, the best leaders never stop learning but they rarely do it alone.

Thinking about those you lead, do you know whether they are sat comfortably within their comfort zone, playing at the edges, or sitting outside? I am always twitchy when I hear the phrase ‘treat others how you like to be treated’ because we are not the same and to assume we are, is dangerous. Leaders need to know the people they lead and be able to flex their style to help them to grow in a safe and challenging way. It’s the obvious stuff, like spotting opportunities for individuals to try something new, giving them support and good quality feedback…sounds simple doesn’t it, but many leaders do not take the time to do the basics so they run the risk of losing talent who are not challenged enough or losing those that feel completely overwhelmed. 

If you don’t lead someone else will – In the early days of having a horse I learnt the negative side of this lesson on many occasions, horses instincts are to protect themselves at any costs so they will always consider, in a split second, whether they need to run away from something or someone they perceive as danger this could be anything from a plastic bag to an aggressive dog either way the decision is made almost instantaneously. It’s only the relationship that you have with your equine partner that can influence in this momentary situations, you have to be ready to take the lead, to reassure, to remain calm and clear about the next step you want the two of you to take if you don’t you can find yourself ½ mile away in a matter of minutes and hopefully still on-board! 

Then there are the times when you need your horse’s expertise and the best thing you can do is trust. One day, I found myself caught on one side of a wide brook with only one place to cross which had a steep bank and large trees either side of a narrow opening, the water was deep and moving fast and the exit on the other side was not clear but we had to get across because the alternative was a 15 mile ride on busy roads. I knew the expert in this situation, to get us through this space, was my horse, too much interference from me could mean sending him in the wrong direction or at the wrong pace which at best may mean a dunking for me, at worst much more serious injury for both of us. So we took a moment and weighed up the options together, and then after carefully guiding him to the edge, I asked him to get us both to the other side safely, loosened my reins, held onto the front of the saddle and closed my eyes – he gently lowered himself off the steep bank, picked his way through the water and then took a long leap to get out the other side… the expert at work.

Leaders do not have to ‘take the lead’ all the time but they do need to make a conscious decision about who is leading if they are not otherwise the space left for another to fill may take the team or organisation in a very different direction. Great Leaders are not only visionaries they are ‘general managers’ as well; surrounding themselves with people who have specialist skills far better than their own and are not afraid to give space to those individuals when the time is appropriate and they are better skilled to lead. The skill of leadership is providing direction and clarity, the coordination of others and the ability to know when to step forward and when to step back and put trust in those around you. 

Teamwork is critical – Riding a horse is the ultimate test of teamwork. Some obvious statements now…horses don’t speak using our language, they have a mind of their own, they are big and often weigh upwards of 400kg, we cannot ‘control’ them only influence them. 

Horse and rider have to work as a team, they have to find a way to communicate even though their instincts and worlds are very different, they are a system, if one part of the team is out of line it directly affects the other parts of the system. 

After about a year of owning my horse I was working towards a competition, we were spending a lot of time practicing hard, I began to notice a sense of reluctance from my horse over a few evenings, nothing too significant and so I pushed him on thinking he was just ‘playing up’. His resistance grew, making it harder for me to get the results I wanted, my focus was solely on the task, the competition, I didn’t have the time for him to be difficult, so I carried on pushing. Eventually one evening after 10 minutes or so of practice he threw an enormous rodeo style buck followed by two more and before I knew it I was sailing through the air and hitting the ground. 

I hadn’t listened to the earlier subtle signs that said my fellow team member was not feeling right, I had chosen to ignore him and allowed myself to be swallowed up in the task. He had given me many signs that something was not right until he eventually had to ‘shout’ at me in horse language by throwing me off just to get me to pay attention to 50% of the team. It turns out his saddle was pinching him, so not only did I not listen I also asked him to deliver the same level of performance when a fundamental piece of equipment had a problem.

The ability to work as part of a team requires leaders to be able to listen with more than just their ears, it requires them to be the thermometer of team cohesion, to spot the subtle changes that may mean that the team is not on track and do something about it. They need to focus on task and team at the same time, it’s easy to get drawn into what has to be done and lose sight of how and who is going to get it done, I often hear about leaders who cancel team meetings because there is too much to do and not enough time, and then wonder why the team have lost their way, are disengaged and feel undervalued, and the task has taken much longer to complete or the results do not come through. 

Patrick Lencioni said “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

A leader is a not a leader without a team, no one can do it all on their own. 

The foundations of all successful relationships, human or animal, need trust and authenticity in order to allow everyone to perform at their best. I know it sounds obvious and there have been thousands of words written about it, but it can still be challenging to achieve these qualities as a leader. It takes courage, a deep level of self-awareness, courage, and tenacity, which are not always the things that most classroom leadership courses teach you. The theory of leadership is fundamental to developing and growing, but it is the experience of leadership, which is where the deep lasting learning takes place. 

I am deeply grateful for all the leadership lessons, both human and equine, I have had, they have taught me what to do more of and less of, but most of all they have taught me that the best place any leader can start from is being clear about who they are and how they lead, and then learning to pay attention to those around them and the environment they are in so they can adapt and really lead.

Written by: Sarah Wall Founder & Director, LeadEQ
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