[I would like to dedicate this blog to Anni Townend with whose help I learned to be my best self and to Horace and Purdy, my four legged teachers.]

It’s funny how two seemingly unrelated aspects of our lives can sometimes converge in the most unexpected of ways. I have been a business leader in one way or another for the best part of twenty years, either running businesses for other people or for myself.

I have also been fascinated by horses since I can remember, but have only been able to explore this passion in recent years. I am now seeing how these two separate but related parts of my life are finally coming together.

I talk to business owners and CEOs about leadership all the time; what kinds of leaders they want to be, who their leadership role models are, how they can increase their self-awareness and therefore emotional intelligence. And time and again I find my thoughts drifting back to horses.

Let me explain.


Why horses?

As many people know, horses are incredibly intuitive animals. As a predated animal horses are typified as a ‘flight’ as opposed to a ‘fight’ animal. They do have a fight reflex which is why they will bite, kick or buck, but this really only happens once they have explored all their other ‘flight’ options, in other words, when they feel they have no other recourse. It will also happen if they have been badly treated.

The reason why their relationship with humans is so intriguing and so special is because to a horse, we are the ultimate predator. Lions kill horses by leaping on to their backs, so when we put a saddle on a horse and ride it we are tapping in to a very primal sensation for them. The horse has to put his/her total trust in us.

Their flight response also means that they are highly attuned to small physical and emotional cues from humans. If we are scared, sad, anxious they will know, often before we do.

This is why horses are used increasingly in leadership coaching and for team building. If you try to lead a horse from a place of fear or anger, it simply will not follow you. In order for the horse you trust you, you have to be calm and assertive.

Someone who does a lot of work with horses in this way said:

"Horses don’t care who you are, what your title is, how much money you make. They give you honest feedback"

Just like the shift that took place in the business community several years ago, the equestrian community is shifting from fear-based leadership (as in “breaking” a horse) to respect-based leadership. This is because horses react the same as humans do to intimidating leaders, which is to detach and disengage.

In order to lead a horse, you have to listen to the horse: be consistent and clear, and mean it. If you do not provide the leadership, the horse will, and it is likely to resent you for it.


So what can horses teach us about how to be better leaders?

Even if you run a business where you work on your own, you are a leader of your own business and you set the tone for how people interact with your business.

Many people I have worked with don’t set out to be a leader, but somehow end up in a leadership position by default. This can happen when you need a team of people to help you realize your vision but you have no idea how to manage them.

So whether you are leading your business as a sole trader, or whether you have a big team of people to manage, identifying what kind of leader you are or want to be can be really helpful.


Introvert Vs. Extrovert

Spending time with horses, and particularly observing herd behavior, has brought me to the natural horsemanship approach championed by Pat Parelli among others, known as the ‘horse whisperers’. The Parelli approach looks at horse ‘types’, and just like us, horses have a predisposition to be either more introvert or extrovert, or a right brain or left brain dominant type; so more emotionally driven, or more linear in their approach to the world and the problems it presents.

Here is a recent interview with another one of my horse whispering heroes, Buck Brannaman:


Knowing how we function, or what makes us tick, helps increase our self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and when that increases not only are we more aware of our own responses, but we are more highly attuned to the people around us and this helps us to be better leaders, as well as team players.

So I would like to share with you what horses have taught me about leadership, and how you can use these ideas when thinking about how you lead your business.


1. Trust

You don’t need me to tell you that the best relationships in life are built on trust. In both our personal and professional lives, we cannot grow positive relationships without mutual trust.

When we are in a relationship with someone we trust then we are able to be ourselves, which in turn engenders personal growth. So just like a lack of trust causes us to shut down and turn in on ourselves, a trusting relationship allows us to expand who are and feel safe and supported. We can build self-confidence and self-esteem from a place of trust and we can help others to do the same.

So ask yourself; do I trust the people I work with? Can they trust me?  How am I a trustworthy colleague/partner? How do I demonstrate trust to my clients? How do they trust my business?


2. Partnership

How are you in partnership with your colleagues? I have worked with many business partnerships that on the surface seemed to be working together but were actually working on their own. The left hand literally didn’t know what the right one was doing. They were not attuned to each other or their teams, leading to disengagement and resentment building up on both sides.

Not only does this often mean wasting huge amounts of resources over issues related to miscommunication, but in some cases I have seen perfectly good businesses folding due to an inability to be in partnership with others.

So think about how you partner with others in your business. You might not have a business partner or employees, but think about how you work along side others, not just your clients, but people in your general network, the people that help you move forward in your business. They might be your web designer, bookkeeper, a supplier, anyone that is somehow invested in your business. Is your communication with each other based on assertiveness? Is there room for feedback? How can you deepen your partnership?


3. Be assertive

You are the only person that knows what is right for you so knowing your boundaries is the first step to being assertive in your communication with others. Assertiveness is a big topic but essentially it is about being able to state your boundaries in a calm but firm way. Assertiveness is often misunderstood as aggression but it is in fact the antithesis of aggression.

If you are on the receiving end of someone being aggressive it is likely to make you feel defensive, as though you are being attacked, but truly assertive behaviour can never be misinterpreted. Assertiveness is stating your needs quietly but confidently. Like trust, assertiveness on both sides of a relationship makes for the best, most effective kind of communication.

So aim to be assertive in your communication and ensure that others know that you expect the same from them. Take responsibility for your actions and the way you communicate and others will follow your lead.

[For more on assertiveness, and Transactional Analysis click here]


And finally, stay positive and always end on a good note!

When Pat Parelli or Buck Brannaman are working with horses that has issues around trust, they always makes a point to keep on working until they have seen a positive change, regardless of how small.

Staying positive in your communication and acknowledging that sometimes we agree to disagree is a good place to end when there has been conflict. When you respect another person’s viewpoint, even if you don’t agree with it, it leaves the door open for further thinking and discussion. It’s another way of saying, “I might not agree with what you say, but I respect your right to say it.”

Being a leader in your business takes time and commitment but the rewards are huge. If you can stay positive and assertive in your communication, you will build trust in your team/colleagues and create strong and lasting partnerships.

Let me leave you with a quote from Pat Parelli:

“If your horse says no, you either asked the wrong question, or asked the question wrong.”

If you want to find out more about leadership in your business, contact me for a 30 minute phone chat here

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