Can You Learn From Horses How To Improve Your Leadership Style?

The old autocratic leadership style is long past its "use-by-date". If you really want to connect with your people, and inspire high performance, then a different leadership style is needed.

One of my enduring passions is horse-riding, in particular dressage. In fact, some of my life's peak moments have been when I've been riding. And you would be amazed at the similarities between good horsemanship and high performance leadership ....

Here's some of what horses have taught me about leadership

Don't Expect Peak Performance 100% Of The Time

In my life as a horse rider, I have experienced moments where I have felt total unity with an animal that is 100 times stronger than me, and yet together we have danced magically. They are moments of absolute connection and inspiration, but they result from many hours of partnering with my horse, listening carefully to what he wants from me and my horse listening carefully to what I want from him.

I've also had some terrible moments on my horse. Times when nothing has gone right and it has been a ride that neither of us has enjoyed. Neither of us have seemed to connect and be able to communicate to each other.

Different Leadership Style Lesson: Don't expect peak performance every single day - Olympic Gold Medallists don't run/swim etc at a gold medal standard every time they compete - but you can expect consistent high performance.

To inspire peak and consistent high performance you must dedicate yourself to many hours of consistent action, caring and service as the leader of your people.

In dressage, every movement you would ever ask a horse to perform is within their potential ... it is part of the horse's inborn capability. The trick, though, is to be able to get the horse to willingly perform the movement ... when YOU want.

When you first start a horse, even though it has the capability to perform, it doesn't know what each of the aids (use of legs, seat and hands to guide the horse to do what you want) means and it can be a very confusing and challenging time for both horse and rider.

If You Use Tools To Manipulate A Faster Response, You May Not Like The Results

Over the centuries, humans have designed and created many bits and pieces of equipment that manipulate and force the horse to comply and help us to quickly get the horse to do what we want, when we want. For example, nosebands to hold their mouth closed (it give us more leverage on the bit), spurs and whips (to make them go forward more 'willingly'), martingales (to hold their heads down).

These tools (and many others) have become an accepted part of the horse-riding game. Most riders use or have used them at some time to get a quicker, faster, easier result with their horse and generally don't question what could be going on for the horse that causes them, the rider, to resort to the use of these tools.

Different Leadership Style Lesson: What tools do you use to get someone to perform at the speed, pace and level you want?

Every person has the innate capability to perform, but in our microwave society we usually look for quick results. We attempt to manipulate and force performance through the carrot and stick method of performance management: motivation (e.g. bonuses, promotions, raises) or fear (e.g. poor performance appraisal, demotion, job loss), rather than taking the time to nurture and engage a person's spirit and inspire them to want to consistently deliver high performance.

No two ways about it force or manipulation will get people to perform ... but not perform at their best

Are You Guilty Of Blaming "Their" Under-Performance On Them, Rather Than Your Lack Of Skill?

Jess, my horse, mostly wants to please (the reality is that Jess is 500 kg heavier than me, his head is about 2 feet higher than mine, and the minute he decides he no longer wants to comply ... there will be absolutely nothing I can do about it).

Before I bought Jess, he had had a few other owners who 'taught' him some really bad habits. Because of these 'problems', my riding coach advised me to use a noseband, spurs and carry a whip. So, there I was, with a horse (that 80% of the time wants to please) being forced to perform, by having his mouth tied closed and bits of steel stuck in his ribs ... simply because I was struggling. My skill as a rider, and my ability to connect with him, were not good enough to guide him to use his potential.

Different Leadership Style Lesson: When there's a problem with someone's performance we often blame them and look for an easy solution, rather than look to how we can improve as a leader so we can guide them to their potential.

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Have The Courage To Follow Your Instincts And Try Something Different

About I'd added all this additional riding gear, (to make my job easier) one time I noticed, as I tightened up the noseband, that he ever so slightly pulled back from me and his ears flickered. I thought to myself, "You hate this don't you. You feel trapped into doing what I want. Your body is here, but your heart is elsewhere." So, in that moment, I decided to listen to Jess and abandon all the gear.

Rather than forcing performance from him, I chose to ride him that day by listening to what he was trying to communicate to me. I was working to discover, what I the rider, could do to help him tell me how to get the best from him. Long story short ... it was one of the best rides I've ever had on him - calm, relaxed, content, he did everything I asked of him with an ease and grace that until that day I hadn't felt from him.

Different Leadership Style Lesson: Firstly, trust your own wisdom and listen to yourself. If you feel unhappy using the traditional methods of leading people and getting them to 'perform' then have the courage to move away from 'accepted practice' and do what feels right.

Secondly, listen to your people, find out from them what they need from you to help them release their potential. (Take the time to 'read' others by going beyond their words - the power and the truth is what sits in their unsaid.)

When you show that you truly care, people open up.

When you connect with others and understand their needs, hopes, desires you open up a breakthrough in performance.

Be A Leader Who Gets People To Work With A Spring In Their Step

Horses (like people) are proud, spirited, independent animals. Put too much pressure on them, back them into a corner and their flight or fight instinct comes to the fore. Just like humans, horses really do want to please, they try and try and yet when their leader doesn't reward, acknowledge, and take the time to become aware of their needs they do one of two things.

  1. They become a problem (fight), or
  2. They succumb and lose their life force (flee) they do what they have to ... but nothing more.

You see both types at dressage competitions.

Horses showing their displeasure, by rearing and bucking, fighting every inch of the way (they tend to be in the minority, because sadly they end up as fairly quickly as dog-meat).

More often you see the flee type of horses. They perform well-executed tests, but there is no sparkle or energy to their performance.

Every now and then though, out comes a partnership where the horse and rider are in total unison, the horse emanates a presence of life, energy and delight in what it is doing - there is a real spring to its step and a joy in its movements, that the horse who is just doing its job simply cannot compete with.

That you have read this far is a good indicator that you are open and willing to use a different leadership style. A leadership style that releases people's potential and ignites their life-force. You are not a Jack Welch or Donald Trump type who fires the bottom 10% and rules with dominance, force and manipulation (if you were you would have gone to another page).

If you have people in your team who have either fled or are fighting, ask yourself "What can I change about the way I lead to inspire and engage their spirit?". Discover some employee motivation techniques here.

To Inspire The Best From Others, Put The Focus Where It Needs To Be

Jess had been under-performing because I had been very self-focused and self-absorbed. My focus had been on my desire to compete on him and get him to do it 'right' quickly. I hadn't given thought for his needs for trust, respect, care and compassion from me ... his leader. As soon as I took the focus off me, and I cared enough to listen to his wants and fears, and responded to them with a different leadership style, his performance changed.

Different Leadership Style Lesson: People yearn to be heard and engaged.

They yearn to know that someone cares about their needs and desires and sees them as important. Once you connect with their spirit, rather than try to break it or bend it to meet your needs, then and only then can you inspire their best and ignite their passion.

Why Did You Become A Leader?

And finally, what Jess reminded me of is: If I don't remain focused on why I am doing something, I end up doing and being something I don't want.

Why do I ride and in particular practice dressage? Because I love the feeling of connection that comes when you are in total unity with your horse.

Different Leadership Style Lesson:Remember why you became leader - I'm sure it was for something more than the increased $ and status. Knowing this and staying focused on it will make all the world of difference to your leadership.

Make the decision that this is your year to bring a different leadership style to your workplace. The year to truly connect with your people, using values such as honor, caring, compassion, listening, empathizing, connection and contribution. When you do this you will truly make a difference and transform yourself and the people in your world.

"As Joanne Gordon wrote in Forbes, "For those executives that still don't give a hoot how their employees feel, ask yourself this: If you needed a heart transplant, would you want the surgeon who feels good about his job or the one who complains about hospital policy while you're under anesthesia? Just asking.""

Use these lessons from horses and start today with your different leadership style.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Use the comments box below and let me know which of the lessons above you need to focus upon more and why you think it will improve the way your team performs.

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