Beth Wonson & Company

Weekly Podcast & Blog

Empowering Executives, Emerging Leaders, Teams, & Individuals For Over 20 Years

Great post by Michael Trotta on what horses can teach us about leadership

Micheal Trotta is a coach, consultant and teacher who focuses on nature as our teacher. I haven't had the chance to learn from him yet but I do so viacariously through some of my coaching mentors and peers including Margaret Webb and June Bayha. The following post includes Michael's reflections on working with horses as leadership teachers, coaches, mirrors and reflectors. He captures why I too love this work.

Beginning in November I will be offering this service as part of my coaching practice. Please contact me if you are interested in learning about yourself through the mirror of a horse.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Leadership is Learning After working with hundreds of leaders in a wide variety of fields and settings -- from educational institutions to private corporations, from camps to communities--a few things have become abundantly clear to me. Every leader has his own style and approach to leading others. Their individual style is almost always directly related to their own experiences of having being led. Most leaders have a sincere desire to do right by those they are leading. There are few who don't fall prey to the unconscious belief that their job as leaders is to control people and outcomes. Natural leadership is not about control. It's about learning.

Recently I co-facilitated a corporate leadership training event with Dr. Martha Beck (nationally best-selling author and columnist for O, the Oprah magazine) and Koelle Simpson (horse whisperer and leadership expert). While both of these ladies could write the book on natural leadership, this time, we let a heard of horses do the teaching.

As the high level executives stepped into the round pen each was tasked with the same challenge - to build rapport with the client and to create movement - in this case the client was a half ton, untrained horse.

What played out with each of these brilliant leaders of industry, was the very same thing that created challenges within their leadership styles back at the corporate office. Fortunately, they were all open to being vulnerable and willing to learn something about themselves.

First, their attempt to build rapport was little more than an introduction, a hand shake or in this case, a pat on the shoulder or head. Horses like people, don't follow those they don't trust and a handshake or job title doesn't automatically earn you the trust you need to effectively lead. This became apparent when after a friendly hello and pat on the head, the horse refused to move or even walk away.

Truth for horses, unlike people, can't be corrupted by social agreements. They don't pretend to like or trust you just because you smile at them. They trust and will only follow you after you have taken the time to learn what it is they need. They need to know that you are the safest option for them.

Next, in an effort to create movement, some of the members of the group demonstrated their leadership style by grabbing hold of the horses bridle and pulling them along while others, timidly made a variety of gestures and noises that left the horse confused and standing still.

"I think this one's broken," joked one man in the round pen whose horse seemed to be ignoring him.

We invited him to stop drawing conclusions and making judgements about the horse and to start paying attention and making observations. What he found was that the horse, despite refusing to move or even face the man, had his ears pointed towards him. "What's that mean he asked?"

"It means..." spoke Koelle, whose lifetime of experience taught her, "that the horse is very much paying attention to you. However, she's confused and uncertain of what you want from her and that makes her uneasy."

Another executive joked as she walked in circles with her horse, "I kinda get the feeling that the horse is leading me rather than the other way around." Indeed she was right, yet continued to walk in circles. If it hadn't been for Koelle's invitation for her to stop and get clear on what she wanted to create, she might have gone on like that all day. Fortunately, she accepted the invitation, stopped walking in circles and asked herself, "What is it that I want this horse to do and what must I do in order to get the horse to trust that it is worth doing?"

Horses are amazing teachers.

Herd leadership is very different than how most of us view or have experienced leadership. To horses, leadership has nothing to do with title or rank. Rather, leadership is a fluid process that shifts from one horse to another as the needs of the whole shift. Leadership is held by the one best suited for the job at the given moment.

As our human friends learned that day, leading a horse is not about controlling it. That would be impossible. Rather leading a horse is about learning to observe and understand what it needs to trust you.

Leadership is no different in the classroom. Children of all ages must feel safe and trust you as you figure out what they need.

By Michael Trotta Sagefire Institute for Natural Learning and Leadership Development