No Relationship, No Influence
Lead Coach and Facilitator at Choose Leadership | Working with Purpose Driven Leaders and Organisations
three people surrounding a horse in a field

On Friday, 7 October I had the privilege, with Regina Vogel and 10 other members of my Leadership Tribe, to spend a day interacting with horses, under the watchful eye of Jude Jennison. Regina gives a great account of her expereince here.

One of the first things I noticed is that horses are social creatures. They form a natural system and constellate in ways which appear to have meaning for them, in so far as they often replicate patterns of movement or relative distances from each other. They also communicate in ways which are not easily perceived by humans. Forget about trying to remember Mehrabian’s reputed findings that 55% of face to face communication is visual, 38% is vocal, and 7% is verbal. The subtle ways in which horses communicate were quite often beyond my perception.

What was striking about observing the herd over the course of the day was the ways in which they were constantly in relationship with one another, which in turn created an invitation to become aware of our relationships with them.

Our challenge really began when we were invited to get into relationship with one of the horses. I remember approaching Admiral, a tall white grey horse; he munching grass and I trying to put on my best horse-friendly face, maintain eye contact, while avoiding a stare. Suddenly I realised that I hadn’t been this nervous since my first high school dance at St. Pat’s in 1983! And just like my prospective dance partner back then, Admiral wasn’t having any of it.

I discovered over the course of the day that it wasn’t just what I was consciously communicating, but rather that which was coming through me unconsciously: nervousness and confidence, dominance and subservience, wanting and needing to connect. This list goes on. Ultimately, only when I cleared my space and just held space for connection to occur, did it happen.

As we explored how to connect with a horse, the importance of doing so landed so strongly. This is what I learned: if I want to influence a horse, I have to be in relationship with it. Like all relationships, it is co-created by both parties. You cannot coerce a relationship – it must be mutual and voluntary. I have seen and experienced myself and others attempting to get a horse to do something before there was a relationship. The horse didn’t move, or if it did, it was to walk away. Before you could get the horse to act, the relationship needed a “yes”, because in the absence of a yes, all that was there was an unequivocal “NO”.

Co-active Leadership is based on this very principle. To lead from the front or the back, the side or the field, requires us to be in relationship with those we seek to lead. Roger Fisher and William Ury’s “Getting to Yes” is based on this principle. “First, Break All The Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman reveal a way of creating relationship for managers in the workplace. William Bridges’ Transitions Model is predicated on this principle.

It sounds obvious and simple, but it is so often overlooked. If you want to lead another, you must be in relationship with them. If you want to lead others, you must be in relationship with them.

Before you take the next step with your team in your change initiative, start your next performance management meeting, or give feedback to someone, consider this: Are you in relationship with the other person? If not, what will you do to connect with them before moving forward and trying to influence them?

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