Horse-sense Leadership

Posted by jlubans on May 06, 2019

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Back in April, Sam Walker wrote of a new staff development program, one involving horses.
You know the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, BUT … (you fill in the rest.)
Well this is a horse of a different color, (ouch).
Albeit gimmicky sounding – as do many well-meaning open air T&D programs - this is not about making the horse drink, it is truly about leading him/her to the trough.
Now a delicate point for some would be the analogy that a horse is like your average worker: in desperate need of being led, of being shown the way, of needing daily guidance as to what to do.
Actually, the story reveals that horses, like humans, need less “leadership” not more. Collaboration gets better results than pulling or pushing the horse.
The horse T&D organizers would have you believe that effective team building takes places, listening and leadership skills are enhanced, and, it sure beats a day at the office. (No, the last item is not in the brochure.)
I don’t mean to sound dismissive or to diminish these efforts to improve communication and understanding in the workplace. There’s plenty to do and outdoor T&D can be very effective, especially for an individual who willingly engages and is open to reflecting about how a “day in the woods” applies to him at work and at home.
At the least, a participant will gain insights about who she is when working with other people.
There’s a genuine learning provided by Dallas and Disney, the two horses resisting human persuasion usually framed in the KITA school of management; Want movement? Kick ‘em in the ass!
This is “carrot and stick” external motivation; coercive in nature, it has a clear message; do as I say and you will be rewarded (a carrot). Resist and you will be punished (the stick).
Failure to move the horses might prostrate the KITA crowd; the head trainer says, “We always have a mental-health professional standing by.” Welcome to the newly sensitized world of outdoor T&D!
I have to ask why they don’t have a few good old cowboys standing by? Could be that a real cowboy would never take part but they’d have some mighty good advice to offer.
The day of which Mr. Walker writes, the take away lesson is that the horses respond best to humble people: “It’s usually a quiet, hardworking, unassuming person with a collaborative streak—which sounds a lot like the kind of manager most employees want to work for“ who gets the horse to move.
Indeed, on that day it was an humble (she admitted to a lack of self-confidence) participant, who spent time with and calmly spoke to the horse, stroked its neck. IOW, got to know the horse. It followed her.
I shared this example last week in my Leadership & Literature class when teaching about the so-called H Factor: “Humbleness and Honesty” which posits that humble group members are of considerable value to a team. The theory is that team members who exhibit strong humility probably will do better than someone who seeks to dominate.
Call it a social skill, the ability to suspend one’s self-importance for the good of the group.
The horse story took me back to a rainy day in a forest with a dozen MBA students. I was co-facilitating "Hot Stuff", a timed team building game in which the group is given resources and then must figure out how to extract an item out of a circle without stepping foot into it. Failure to complete the task results in the destruction of the human race.
Two of the group - both guys - would not stop telling the others what to do. Nothing was working nor was the group close to a solution, but the two guys kept on directing – they just knew better. So, my co-facilitator and I muted them!
What does that mean? We told them they could not speak for the rest of the game, to put a sock in it, so to speak. (Lest you think it unlikely they’d follow this directive, keep in mind these students were part of a class and the professor was in attendance. They knew if they disrupted, they would be down-graded.)
Guess what happened next, in click bait terms?
The quietest members, one in particular, suggested the several collaborative steps to solving the problem. The group extracted the item in the circle just before time (and the human race) expired.
The two muted guys, beet-red in face, were not happy. Did they learn anything? Alas, probably not. If there ever was a need for a mental health professional standing by this was it!

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My book, Fables for Leaders is only a click away:


My 2010 book, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

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