Leadership Lessons from Horses

I recently made a major life change – I retired from the organization where I’ve been employed for nearly twenty-five years. Of course my final week saw the requisite retirement party, with the twist of having it over Zoom due to the pandemic. I am not one to like that sort of attention, but I also know these events are as much for the attendees as for the person leaving. I have appreciated a few of those opportunities to say farewell to a co-worker, so I was a good sport about it.

As I listened to all the requisite memories and tributes I was increasingly surprised at who spoke up and the themes of their comments. This was more than the “fun to work with”, “I remember this one time”, “a real hard worker”, “we’ll miss your smile” sorts of comments I’ve often heard at these events. To a person, the comments all revolved around leadership and mentoring. As I listened (and misted up more than once) a theme kept popping into my head – a lot of my leadership skills originated in lessons I’ve learned from the horses.

Flowers for my retirement

I am sad that some elements of horse training have corrupted the word “leader” into something that fits an old fashioned idea of a boss or even a drill sergeant. There are still those models out there, even in the workplace – I worked for someone who fit the mold of the most sadistic drill sergeant you’d find in the movies. But science has shown over and over that those models are not successful, whether with people or animals. True leadership is something that guides those you lead to become more empowered, not less. Even from a very young age I saw the difference between these two models with regard to the horses. Of course for me being with horses was not about leadership but about a relationship. As an adult leading human workers, I’ve determined those are actually fully intertwined concepts.

I decided to write this piece in order to pay tribute to those equines I’ve loved and what they taught me that I carry with me into any leadership role.  So, without further ado …

  • Delight, who taught me that there is always a reason behind ‘bad’ behavior that usually requires empathy not punishment.  For her it was both fear and pain; for my staff it can be health or something going on at home.  Understanding this allows you to help rather than making the situation worse.
  • Wicki, who taught me to just let them do their job.  We got along much better when I accepted that he didn’t need as much management as people instructed me to do.  He was a veteran who knew his job far better than I – I have led people who fit that description.  The best way to build trust is to respect their skills and knowledge, learn from it, and be there when support is needed.
  • Ben, who taught me to fit the job to the individual.  It is not always a popular opinion, but not everyone is cut out to be an analyst, a teacher, a supervisor, etc.  I have watched managers create losing situations by trying to fit someone into a role that does not suit them.  Ben and I were much better off when I finally stopped trying to make him an Event horse.  He was much happier as a hunter/jumper, and that made it more enjoyable for me.  With adult humans some ‘soft skills’ cannot be taught.  Finding where someone can thrive, even if that means they need to move on, is the best support you can provide.
  • Guy, who taught me that sometimes being firm is necessary.  He was a mustang raised by people who taught him (as a foal) to put his front hooves on their shoulders.  When I was asked to work with him, he’d been through a number of people trying to ‘tame’ him – from standard training methods to literally roping, throwing, and blindfolding him to get on. He tried his learned bullying tactics with me, which were met with firmness when safety warranted but otherwise ignored.  It took surprisingly little time for him to change his attitude, begin to treat me like a friend, and turn into an amazing youth horse.  I have had to push back on employees (in fact, even on my last day) – but I’ve reserved it for those situations where someone acts badly toward coworkers or refuses to take accountability for their own actions.  It is never easy or comfortable, but it is the only option for improving the situation.  I’ve watched those leaders who are afraid of a potential confrontation end up with team members who get worse and remain a frustration.
A photo of me on Delight
Delight, my first love who taught me much
Ben who taught me more than I can list
  • Dani, who taught me that ‘pushing through’ was not the best approach.  While many horses will tolerate us pushing past a roadblock, and somehow still get to the right place, Dani was not having it.  The day we nearly went over backwards was my wake-up call.  There had to be a better way!  She taught me that if you are not getting through with one approach, try another.  Sometimes that might mean finding a backdoor to ‘sneak’ to your intended goal.  She became my best dance partner, to date, and taught me more about patience than any other horse.  If an employee is struggling with a task or concept, it is incumbent upon me to find other ways to approach it, rather than leaving them feeling that it is a lacking on their part.
  • Java, who taught me that it is in everyone’s best interest to recognize when it’s just not working out.  He was physically immensely talented, but the slowest to grasp new things of any horse I’ve worked with.  Try as I might, we just never meshed.  We struggled together for years before I finally gave him to my mother.  The repetition he required helped her to improve, and they spent many happy years working together.  No one’s leadership style will fit every single employee, and every person you meet will not fit into every job or work environment.  It serves no one to struggle against each other if the mix is like oil and water.

I have done a lot in my career.  I have won awards for innovation and my legacy can still be seen in the organization.  I surprised the audience at my party by revealing that the one thing I set out to do was to avoid supervising others.  Yet, when it became clear that to continue innovating I would have to move into a supervisory role, I took with me the lessons I’d learned from the horses (as well as the ‘what not to do’ from past bad bosses and teachers).  In the end, while I enjoyed my achievements along the way, it has watching the development of my team members that was always the most rewarding.  I suppose that should not be surprising, as it’s the relationship and development of my horses that I enjoy, far more than any prizes I have won along the way.

One theme that repeated throughout my farewell event was empathy. I truly believe that it is the most important element a leader can have. Whether you are a supervisor, a horse trainer, a parent, or a teacher, you are a leader. Few would argue that those last two roles require empathy – perhaps because we immediately think of a female in those roles – but I have seen a distinct lack of empathy in individuals in the former two roles. All of the worst leaders I’ve observed, whether of people or horses, have little to no empathy. It is not simply saying “I care”, it is actually being able to feel what the other individual might be going through. Without empathy you cannot listen and understand well enough to learn leadership lessons from horses.

Perhaps you can relate to the lessons I’ve learned, or maybe they’ll just spark an idea that will lead you to your own lessons. Either way, remember this last point: good leadership is about setting the other individual up for success. It is not about barking orders, keeping a tight lead, or punishing errors. Help them understand, guide them in a good direction, remove obstacles to failure, then give them independence to accomplish something. Errors will happen along the way, but they are only opportunities to identify gaps and learn lessons – for both of you! But the greatest rewards in life are those moments when someone you are guiding discovers just what they are capable of. May you have as many of those as I’ve had!

Me and Noble, from my retirement announcement – testing all of my leadership skills and teaching me new ones

 

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