What horses taught me about my leadership
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide
A group of people and five horses

It was a rainy, windy friday, when five horses have taught me a lot about my leadership.

Last week, we finally connected to our co-active leadership community as we co-created our long planned and self-organised leadership retreat. We had postponed this on site event two years in a row. So our arriving and hugging the people hello with whom we’ve gone through an amazing personal transformation five years ago, burst into a huge ball of joy and laughter. Given that a lot of truth is spoken in this leadership community, rest assured that joy was not the only emotion we experienced over the three days, but I’ll share more about our fascinating group dynamics in another blog.

A horse is like a communicating mirror

Our intention for our retreat was twofold: to deepen our relationship and to work on our individual leadership edges. As experiential learning is part of our DNA, our amazing organisers centred this retreat on a day out with horses. And Jude Jennison coached us through the exploration of ourselves and our group dynamics.

Apparently horses are mirrors to us humans. So unsurprisingly, we each learnt what we needed to learn on that day, and here’s a tiny slice of what happened around me and what I take that to mean today as I’m slowly trying to make sense of the long weekend.

Experiencing without control uncovers dynamics at the speed of light

When we arrived in the field, five horses were waiting for us. They were standing in groupings, and our coach had told us that there was one new horse and that this was shaking up the group quite a bit. Once we were watching the horses, our coach asked us: “What do you see?”

I saw all horses eating away on the grass. One horse was standing alone, a little closer to us. I was instantly attracted to that horse. I saw independence and self-confidence, and it made me feel good and wanting to approach that horse. To my surprise, the first person to answer the question had made up a completely different story about that horse! “This is the new horse you told us about. It hasn’t integrated yet. And I feel very sorry for it.”

My thoughts and his statement tell a lot about the both of us, though less about the horse, and of course our coach had set us up for that to teach us our first lesson.

First impressions may prove right, but not because they’re true

We carry our beliefs about ourselves and our assumptions about others with us wherever we go. I saw independence, because I truly value and aspire to it. My friend and colleague sees pain and people in need, and he wants to help.

You do the same: When you walk into a room and you only take one brief look, you already make up your mind about the people you notice. Some of your beliefs are simply about who’s got power in this room, or who might be on your wavelength and a potential ally. As you get to know them better, you pile on more and more of your assumptions. These assumptions shape your relationships. From the beginning. They simply get into the way of seeing others and truly connecting to them.

Our assumptions put others off

What the horses showed us after we were let loose on them, was that our assumptions put them off. We were supposed to make contact to them, to connect. Yet they were simply not interested in us. I went to my “leader” horse and just stood there not quite knowing what to do. I didn’t want to intrude! And nothing happened. My horse just munched on the grass and ignored me. It turns out that waiting for others to approach me, which is my pattern, means that I lose out on connecting to people who like me wait to be approached. My loss!

When we debriefed this first encounter, our coach told us to go back to the horses and to consciously release our ideas about ourselves or the horses. “I am letting go of …” was our prompt, and we experimented with whether the horses would connect to us once we released our beliefs and assumptions. It was a process of cleaning the energetic space between myself and “my horse” by getting aware of and releasing what was in my way.

When we let go of beliefs about ourselves and others

For me the most familiar thoughts that came up were “I have to look competent”, “I don’t want to intrude lest I’m not welcome.” And while feeling strange as I kept muttering “I’m letting go of…”, I ended up at a simple “You know, I trust you, and I just want to connect.”

Our whole group experienced this second encounter of letting go as a much calmer and more connected being together. The horses didn’t walk away, and they looked up from their delicious grass meals. A first contact was made.

But I was also aware of a strange but familiar feeling around my solar plexus, and it got in the way of my connecting as well as my ability to read the field around me. In short, something inside caught my attention and it blocked my connection to those around me. So here’s what horses taught me about my leadership.

What horses can teach you about leadership

Whether you put someone on a pedestal, or whether you think they’re bad or lacking, you just put them off. They will tread around you carefully, either trying not to disappoint you, or not to upset you further. Or they will live up to your negative expectations (which not only kids tend to do). Your people will walk on egg shells around you, if they experience you as tense and fearful. They will not be fully in if they sense your doubts, or they’ll try to compensate for your lack of clarity. So you need to work on your own beliefs, if you want to be a leader, not just by position, but also by being and doing.

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