Leadership lessons from the saddle

Everything we know about work has changed. Which means we have to drive differently. And so we need different teachers. A powerful source of timely wisdom is nature.

Natural wisdom is timely, primarily because it is something we all share. Furthermore, the resilience of natural systems is undeniable in the face of great upheaval and challenge. Ultimately, it is imperative to our survival that we better manage our natural resources.

Specifically, horses are one of the most successful species since the beginning of time. They are among the elite 1% of species that have been alive since Earth’s formation 3.85 billion years ago. The horse culture that has allowed them to be so evolutionary successful offers powerful lessons about teamwork. Which we can learn and apply in our own styles of leadership and collaboration interacting with horses.

Perhaps the most familiar form of interaction with horses is riding them. That is, partnering with a 1,200-pound animal to move quickly, over obstacles, and around other unpredictable horses and animals. This is a very different experience from working with people or leading people in a professional setting. And yet, in the very difference, the elements of being in the saddle offer profound wisdom about effective leadership.

Do less

As prey animals, horses are very intent on conserving their energy. Every extra step they take is one less step they can take when attacking a mountain lion. So to riders on the cusp of these savvy energy savers, veteran trainer Linda Van Kooy often says, “Do less! You got this!”

Van Kooy’s style is one of great empathy with horses, seeking the most deeply connected approach to riding possible, based on a deep understanding of the nature of horses. Her approach requires riders to be one with the horse, intimately connected and aware of their state at every moment of a ride.

There are times when we as leaders need to do something or do more. But there are also many times when this advice to “Do Less” is perfect. Especially when it comes to those things we know how to do. The things we “have”, in Van Kooy’s words.

Less is more

In a time of widespread burnout, when we could all fill at least 24 hours of each day with tasks related to our work, this equine perspective of doing less and conserving energy is powerful.

If you know your most valuable customers don’t read emails, why study a fourth draft of your monthly newsletter? Save your energy and send them a funny cartoon or an inspirational quote, or even pick up the phone to see how Thanksgiving was with the kids at home from college. Whatever you know works. Not what you think you “should” be busy doing.

Similarly, if someone on your team expressed a desire for more feedback but didn’t take the one-on-one time you offered, give them three minutes to call and tell him something he did well last week. Then do this 19 more times over the next 10 weeks. You will have made much more efficient use of the 60-minute block you were given.

Doing less as a manager

Speaking of management, don’t I have to train my direct reports to do their jobs? And then watch them do it the first time, or maybe let them watch me a few times first? And then they get together to talk about their first solo attempt and again for their second and so on? Training and repetition are definitely important – any rider knows that!

But there is also a place for doing less. Assuming your direct reports have the skills and knowledge to do their job and/or the means to get it, give it a shot! Humans – like horses – ultimately want to be comfortable, which includes fulfilling their responsibilities. And so, all you have to do is ask them to do what you need to do, clearly. Make sure they really have the resources, that there are no obstacles to action, and then be patient.

It may not work in the exact style you envisioned or on your timeline. But if these factors aren’t mission critical (and if you didn’t specify them in your question, they don’t have to be), you don’t have to worry about controlling them. Let team members hear your request and honor it, in their own way. This will be the most regenerative form of energy for the work you need to do together, even if it requires some fine-tuning along the way.

Van Kooy tells her riders: “Keep moving. Make it up as you go. I don’t want it now – you want it in 10 steps.” Managers are wise to do the same. Get your team moving in the general direction you want, in their own way. Then look for what needs fixing – but only what needs to be fixed, not every thing that is different from how you would do it. And do less to help your team get there. In 10 steps, in their own way.

This is the second of three articles sharing lessons from training, riding and just being with horses that have inspired breakthroughs and insights for leaders. These lessons apply to our own performance, the operations and management of our teams, and how our organizations serve the communities around them. Stay tuned for the final piece and read the first one here if you missed it.

In the meantime, the next time you see a horse, whether on TV or in a memory, while planning your vacation or next trip, look a little closer to see what you might learn.

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