Savvy Leadership: Learning from Horses

As I write this I am once again in the Dargle area located in the picturesque Midlands of Kwa Zulu Natal. It is a place that when created surely must have brought a smile to the Creator; reflection of a job well done!  It is a special place, made even more special by the activity that brings me here: Whispering with horses. Horse Whispering is not new but in so far as it applies to leadership development, is unique. A brief history is that many years ago, at this very spot, I was listening enthralled to Carlene Bronner explain about learning the art of natural horsemanship. She spoke with passion about the difference it was making to her relationships – and not just those with her horses, but also with people! I have known Carlene forever it seems and a social visit to her and her husband John’s farm was when I first heard of this unique way of working with horses. I found myself wanting to experience the magic myself and, curious to explore any potential parallels there might be to leadership, made a plan to join Carlene for a day of horse whispering. The rest as they say, is history.

Today we use horses to teach leaders about leadership. I know of no better way to help those responsible for leadership – or those being groomed for leadership, to understand the leadership challenges they will encounter in the new world of work. If the world is changing, and we know it is, then it follows that leadership thinking and practice needs to change.  In many instances this is easier said than done as, more often than not, successful leadership moulds prove particularly stubborn to any suggestions of change. Many leaders will readily acknowledge the changing context of leadership and may even acknowledge the need to change their own leadership approach. Yet, in spite of this, they still fail to make any meaningful adjustments. Well-worn habits prove hard to break and add some successful formula / experience into the mix, and you have the equivalent of leadership mould superglue!

‘Savvy’ is a word commonly used in the world of natural horsemanship and it is translated as knowing the why, what, when and how to doing something. Applying that meaning to leadership is both apt and instructional. Horse Whispering provides an experience that evokes profound thinking around the challenges of what it takes to lead into the future and specifically, in the context of the emerging Connection Economy. It is an experience that acts as a mirror to ones own leadership ability and serves as an exceptional understudy to the Invitational Leadership model that we frequently speak about in TomorrowToday. Quite simply, it is an experience like no other. This isn’t the first article I’ve written on leadership and horse whispering, and I suspect it won’t be the last; however being here has once again made avoiding further reflection and writing impossible. In part my motivation for doing so is to hopefully encourage you to seriously consider investing in this experience – especially those of you for whom the Midlands is easily accessible. Take it as a challenge – a challenge I would count a privilege to get to share with you…but more on that later.

One of the biggest challenges of leadership is to get the right kind of behaviour and effort from those being led and to do so through cooperation rather than through coercion and compliance. How often have you heard the sentiment expressed that can be represented by the exasperated leader saying, “If I turn my back for a second…if I don’t continually push those workers / my team…then nothing ever happens!” This type of directive leadership is actually more of a reflection on the Leader than on his or her team! It is a leadership type that requires consistently being ‘online’ – in other words it is dependent the presence of a direct, visible and tangible chain of command between the leader and those being led. To go ‘off-line’ would have disastrous results and so we continue to develop stronger lines; rules and procedures that tether the leader and the followers even more closely. To do so seems natural and right – after all, ‘isn’t this what strong leadership all about’ is our reasoning. It makes sense given our lack of trust in others to do what they are told without repeatedly being told. So ‘online’ leadership becomes the norm and is reinforced by the traditional carrots, sticks and measures – and so the game is played. For a time doing online work with your horse is necessary. It is necessary in order to create the trust and bond that will make doing ‘off-line’ (or what in natural horsemanship is referred to as ‘liberty’) work possible.

And this is when the magic happens! Having done the necessary groundwork and established the relationship and earned the right to lead, your horse is freed from the restraining rope (line).  The trust bond between you and your horse now depends on an invisible line that magically connects the two of you together. Synchronicity and harmony ensue as cooperation replaces coercion and willingness replaces force. It is at this point that all the earlier effort and learning concerning the art of natural horsemanship – the ‘whispering’, makes sense. This is the point at which it all comes together like a crescendo to a musical score. There was the need to learn the new ‘language’; the need to fully understand the animal with which you are partnering; the need perhaps to conquer a fear in the learning process; the insight or acknowledgment that there is indeed a  ‘better way’ to exercise leadership than what the conventional wisdom would have us believe; the need to learn how to effectively use the props available, including the necessary elements of pressure and reward. And for each of these aspects that underpin the unfolding magic, sits profound leadership analogies and lessons that await discovery. It is in the process of this discovery that leadership mindsets shift and new paradigms begin to emerge.

I have seen individuals and teams transformed by this experience. It invites ongoing reflection that prompt changes the to shape and form of one’s own leadership mindset and behaviour. It is an experience that no amount of classroom time can replicate and speaking as one who frequently lectures and teaches strategic leadership, if I had my way, every leadership academy and programme would be routed through this bit of Midland’s magic.

In conclusion, let me try to answer some common questions that might help prompt you to seriously consider taking this one step further. Please excuse what, at this point, must sound like a brash sales push…well actually I guess it is – but only because I hope to expose you to this amazing experience. Knowing what I have come to learn about horse whispering and learning leadership, there really is no need to apologize!

How much time will it take?

It is preferable to get an early start (be at the farm by 8:30am or thereabouts) and then we would finish at about 3pm. This would include lunch, a time of reflection and debrief. Of course there is flexibility around the timing and programme given the travel time involved. The farm is about 1:20 minutes from Durban.

If I /my team is not from Durban what then?

Well, a suggestion would be to consider having your next team retreat somewhere in the Midlands in any of the numerous conference facilities. A morning of Horse Whispering could then from part of your strategic agenda / programme. There is ample accommodation close to the farm and in the past many teams have combined this experience with a strategic retreat / conference of some kind. That said, it is entirely accessible from Durban and so the city itself becomes a viable venue.

Who would benefit from the experience – does it have to be a leadership team?

Anyone will benefit and whilst I like to shape the experience around the leadership angle, it has be used / applied to numerous other areas including: team building, communication, personal development etc…. Teams of all shapes and sizes have benefited from Horse Whispering including: executive, management, sales, finance, marketing and administrative teams; Leadership Development and mentoring programmes have used the experience and in one particular creative use, the experience was given as part of an incentive / reward scheme for staff. It can be used to treat customers / clients and as such, generates valuable off-site time with them. In some cases entire companies have exposed their staff to Horse Whispering. There have been occasions when spouses have attended together with entire families.

How many can participate at one time?

Groups have ranged between 5 and 25. A preferable size is about 12 given the ideal of everyone being actively engaged throughout the experience. There would be ways to rotate people through the experience were that to be logistically possible. For example, over a two-day conference located nearby, some could attend on day one, and the balance on day two. We have had an entire Head Office team attend over two separate days (separated by some two weeks) and I then facilitated a full debrief in their boardroom once both groups had experienced Horse Whispering. The point is: where there is a will, there is a way!

Will I have to ride a horse – or what if I’m afraid of horses?

No, there is no riding involved. You will not be required to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable and in Carlene, you are in the hands of an expert with vast experience who knows her game.

How can I find out more about Horse Whispering, including the costs involved?

Before giving you contact details, let me assure you that, given the value to be had, it is not an expensive option – not when compared to many team-building type activities. Costs will be influenced by the size of the group and package taken. Should you wish to know more then do contact Jude at either jude@tomorrowtoday.co.za or on 0728590412.

I tell you what… if you can show that it was this article / offer that inspired you to take the plunge – why then, I’m prepared to offer you and your team a special discount. Now that is looking a gift horse in the mouth! I look forward to seeing you in the Midlands and together doing some whispering with horses.

One thought on “Savvy Leadership: Learning from Horses”

  1. One of the best experiences I have had on relational leadership savvy. An awesome setting and the team are great. I have always belived in “learning by doing”, This experience is the “proof”. Thanks. Denis

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