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More than 40 years ago I began horse-riding, thus I dare say that I know a little about horses. I even have a few old fractures bearing witness to this long-standing relationship. More recently I have turned towards Natural Horsemanship, thus integrating this amazing approach into my work on human leadership and communication.
Last week I was attending a thorough seminar on Natural Horsemanship at Asvanara Academy, in Tuscany (Italy), when the fourth day I got a “nice” kick in the right ankle. Thanks to good reflexes I could avoid the worst consequences on the physical plan, but my pride was badly hurt. Then, as if the kick had been the proverbial Zen Master’s hit on the head, I became aware that I had got one of the greatest leadership lessons ever. What happened?
According to the rules of the seminar, I was supposed to be the leader of my horse-man pair, and any day there were new lessons to learn and tasks to perform. Gosh: performance… the most threatening of words for any team member! When one (or a team) is expected to perform, or to achieve some objectives, they get immediately stressed and fine sensitivity goes away. I was not immune to that, in the zest of learning new things and becoming soon good at them. What I did, thus, was to put a lot of pressure on my “four-legged team”. Little by little the joy of dancing together in harmony became a jostling thing, and my horse started to rebel. Basically, apart from the occasional threatening signal, what she did was simply a bad performance, and giving me a hard time any time there was an exercise to do.
Keeping the focus on the achievement of results (i.e. accomplishing the tasks) I put in more and more “leading” energy, and became more and more frustrated while “my team” was performing more and more poorly.
Finally, pushing “my team” to achieve the highest objective of the day, I got a strong biting threat and, as soon as I pushed back her head, the horse swiftly turned around and shot at me.
Although I regained immediately control of the situation (and “control” is not a lightly chosen word here) and of “my team”, my frustration was by that moment at the highest, and thus the day ended. To our luck, there are instructors in seminars, and sometimes they are excellent, like in this case…
The next morning more tasks to accomplish, and since that was the fifth and last day, the most difficult ones. Still slightly limping on the right side, I was a little wary of more “dominance game”; notwithstanding this I went on, encouraged by the instructor. As soon as I started sending the horse “out to task”, she began rebelling, and although doing what she was asked, she did it without grace, with waste of large amount of energy, i.e. performing poorly. Finally, the instructor told me gently: “your fourth level send-out signal is three times too strong”. Now, there is a little technicality here that I wish not go into, but what struck me like a lightning was that while I thought I was exerting the minimal required force in order to activate “my team” and do the task, I was in fact using a lot of excess strength and just scaring my partner into rebellion (which in this case was a desire to set free and run away – typical horse reaction).
I was enlightened, like the Zen Master’s disciple. I recalled “my team”, calmed her down, let her graze while I reset my energy state. After a few minutes we started the exercise again: this time she responded perfectly to the really first hint of the instruction I was giving, saving me the effort to act steps three and four of the process. She “went out to task” and did it excellently four times in a row, without effort on mine or her part. She just expressed the huge potential that was in the magnificent horse that she is
Now I will end with the personal narrative and share with leaders and aspiring ones the great lessons that I have learned here.
- When your team does not perform, the right response is seldom that of “putting more effort”. Focusing on the expected performance and insisting just worsens things
- It is paramount to explore the potential of your team and assess it carefully
- A leader needs thoroughly inquire into the blockages preventing the expression of such potential
- Once well understood the situation, exert the minimal required force to kick-start the expression of the team’s potential. Leave them space to manifest themselves and their talents
- Keep the joy of doing the task alive in the group; if joy subsides, set apart the task for a moment and rebuild motivation and the pleasure of working together
- Make sure to have your ideas well clear, including your objectives, and to communicate them effectively, in a reassuring, motivating way
- Praise any effort, independently from the result, but reiterate the aim of your work whenever necessary. When the common good is perceived, motivation skyrockets
- Stick to a “playful” approach every time that it is possible. In other cases (e.g. “playful emergency surgery” could sound inappropriate, I guess) just keep the mood of your team as light as possible in the given circumstances.
- Paramount: if your team start to “flee”, avoiding tasks, responsibilities, being very low on motivation, be sure that it is you who are scaring them away. In this case, breathe deeply, relax, calm down and reset your energy to the lowest possible level, and improve your communication. After all, we trainers and coaches are there right to help you
I hope my readers will find this article inspiring and useful for their everyday professional, and why not personal, life. More on Leadership and horses as great mirrors in my next seminars.
Feel free to contact me at my direct e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to know more and see how excellent leadership can be developed within your organization and for yourself.