Nature has powerful lessons to teach us as leaders. This natural wisdom is timely now, not least because it is something we all have in common. Furthermore, the resilience of natural systems is undeniable in the face of great upheaval and challenge. Finally, we would do well to better manage our natural resources.
Specifically, horses are one of the most successful species on our planet. They are in the 1% of surviving creatures since the formation of the Earth. The culture that enabled this survival offers powerful insights about teamwork. And interacting with horses offers countless lessons about leadership and collaboration.
Antonello Radicchi is a world-renowned horse trainer. His training is based on a deep study of communication between horses and humans. Thanks to this study and his partnership with Count Antonio Bolza and the Reschio Stables in Umbria, he has produced some of the most responsive and versatile dressage animals in the world.
These successes rely on communicating with horses to get them to do difficult things. A mandate very similar to that of modern leaders. Radicchi’s non-coercive approach closely resembles the empathetic and collaborative leadership that is required in the rapidly changing and competitive hybrid business landscape. A closer look at his style provides specific tools we can use to improve our communication as leaders and ultimately the performance of our teams.
The essential element of Radicchi’s method is contact. He breaks the word down into its Latin (and modern Italian) roots: with touch. Before we can even attempt to communicate with another being – whether equine or human – we must establish contact. He defines this connection as “the essence of feeling, knowing, and understanding,” in his book, You speak Equis.
He assures us that we all have the ability to create this deep, multisensory connection with others. But that we often allow the busyness of modern life and the complexity of relationships to obscure this deep, non-verbal connection. Radicchi warns, “If there is no contact, there is no communication, and without communication there is no rapport.”
Developing our innate ability to connect with those around us is a learning process. We will make mistakes along the way. The important thing is to admit our mistakes so that we can progress towards a closer relationship based on respect.
All of these insights come from Radicchi’s decades of work with horses. But there is no doubt that it applies to our work as leaders. Before we worry about managing difficult conversations, providing feedback, or inspiring our teams, we better make contact. And that contact should be characterized by closeness and respect.
Radicchi describes energy as the “primary requirement” when it comes to training horses. As prey animals, horses conserve their energy at all costs. In other words, they avoid any movement that is not necessary to alleviate discomfort or escape a predator. Due to the physical force of inertia, people are not so different.
Nothing gets done by a team that has no energy for work. And these days, burnout is so prevalent that wise managers put a lot of thought into managing their team’s energy. Successful energy management efforts go far beyond the health benefits. Like the Radicchi stable, it’s about doing everything we can to make sure our people have the right nutrition, rest, equipment and support from us and their colleagues.
Once you’re sure you have a healthy rapport with your team, there’s one more important ingredient before communicating what they need to do. Make sure they have the energy to work. Energy management is a worthy topic in itself. In extreme brevity, leaders who manage their team’s energy in today’s professional context ensure a few basic provisions:
- wages and benefits that allow employees to provide for themselves and their families’ basic needs;
- a culture of trust and flexibility so that employees can manage their commitments and priorities, within and beyond their role at work;
- clear responsibilities that align with employees’ skills and interests; and
- regular feedback that demonstrates how they, as people, and their work matter to the team and the organization’s stakeholders.
Once you’ve established at least a starting point in terms of contact and energy, you can start asking your team to perform. Radicchi teaches his students a “grammar” of horse language. We probably speak the same language as our employees. But the differences in position within the organization, not to mention our divergent backgrounds, require us to make sure we’re speaking in terms that make sense to them.
Humans are of course not animals. We have more elaborate frontal cortices that add to our ability to plan, remember past feelings and experiences, and project the feelings of others. Still, Radicchi’s insistence that we be clear and predictable with our instructions is a useful reminder when leading a team or collaborating. Especially in today’s hybrid, chaotic and competitive workplace.
When a direction (or a strategy) is not understood, it is important to change the way it is said rather than repeating the same thing in the same way. Radicchi encourages his students to amplify the command to the horse and, if the desired response is still not elicited, to change the request entirely. Still using horse language, of course.
We would do well as leaders to follow this approach. If our teams aren’t performing the way we’d like them to, it’s up to us to understand what’s not clear to them. We need to find a different way to explain the desired outcome in a way that is understandable and motivating to them.
Recognize the intent
Finally, one of Radicchi’s most powerful—and challenging—lessons is recognition and reward intent to respond to your request. This requires that initial block of contact to be extremely well established. The trainer must be so connected to the horse that he feels the change when the horse understands the request and intends to do it. At the beginning of training, the horses do not know how to do the high-level maneuvers that Radicchi and his protégés demand. To avoid discouragement and frustration, they must be rewarded for their courage and energy in trying.
Similarly, in a rapidly changing business context, we must recognize our team’s desire to keep pace with our changing needs. They have to constantly learn new ways of working, just like us as leaders. This can be exhausting. But it can also be highly engaging and rewarding – if the learning is supported by close and respectful contact with a motivating leader.
Make sure you recognize your team’s intent to make changes and perform as your business needs. It will generate the energy we all need to get through these difficult times.
This is the first 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 next two this week. And 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.
send me an email for a tool to start evaluating your driving habits and making them more useful. Or click here to watch Radicchi’s training in action at Castello di Reschio.