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Tally Ho!

Tally Ho! with Beth Wonson

I’m really eager to share something with you that unfolded so beautifully for me yesterday, and that is the awareness that everyone needs something to push against.

So what do I mean by that? Well, recently my partner surprised me with an amazing gift – horseback riding lessons. I have been a horse lover and a horseback rider for years, and I use horses in my leadership work. I also partner with them to provide coaching to people. I just love the energy of horses, and I think what I love the most about them are their integrity, honesty, and commitment to their own self-care.

I love how when a horse is free to make his or her own choices, they are really eager to connect with people who stand in their own truth, and it doesn’t matter to the horse what that truth is. It doesn’t matter how vulnerable the person is, it doesn’t matter if the person is afraid. Horses just want to connect with truth.

Horses actually move away from energy that is dramatic or confusing. I tell people all the time that pretending you are not afraid because horses sense fear is a myth. While they can sense your fear, the pretending part is a myth. If you pretend you are not afraid, horses will get confused about what you are. They are creatures of prey; they need to know what they’re dealing with.

So if you are afraid but pretending to be brave and strong, horses will disconnect and move away from that conflicting energy because they don’t know if you are a mountain lion or some other thing they need to fear. All they know is that your energy is not authentic, and consequently, they pull away.

So I was having my second lesson on this big thoroughbred who was rescued from the race track at a really young age. He is 16 years old now, and these days, he relaxes in a spacious pen and he is loved and people care for him, and he has lots of relaxed horse-friends around him. His work is to patiently carry people like me through our lessons.

Shortly before I went to my lesson, I was on the phone with a board member of a nonprofit that is in a lot of transition. They provide an amazing service, and they have been run for several years by a board of committed, hardworking volunteers who, essentially, have done all the work for the organization. But the organization has become so successful that, over the past few years, they have been able to go from a full volunteer organization to having some paid staff.

As part of that transition, they hired me to help them define their direction, evaluate their organizational structure and help transition both the board and the leadership from a group of people who are task-doers to leaders who are able to set direction, motivate, inspire, provide resources, and to be accountable and hold others accountable.

Now, this is not an easy transition for a dedicated group of people who are accustomed to, and driven by, doing the work that needs to be done to make a difference in their community.

It is also not an intuitive shift, given that they started this whole thing a dozen or more years ago because they saw a need. They rolled up their sleeves, and they began filling that need really successfully. So the discomfort they are feeling around setting direction – and then supporting others to lean into and drive toward fulfilling that direction – is a new way of operating. It requires definition and some support.

So by now you might be wondering, “OK, Beth. What the heck does your horseback riding lesson have to do with this board of directors?”

Well, I’m going to tell you…

As I was riding along, my instructor said, “Beth, I love the way you have him pushing into the bit,” – the bit is that bar that rests in the horse’s mouth. She said, “You’re being clear with your intention, and you’re looking exactly where you want to be going, and you’re using your legs to push him forward. The bit is serving as the thing you are gently asking him to lean into. He knows exactly what you’re wanting because you’re using that bit as a goal for him.

“He knows how far, how fast, how smooth, and how much energy because you’re holding the energy in the bit lightly and consistently. He knows to drive with his hind end – because that’s where most of his power comes from – to round his back to protect his muscles and to efficiently stretch his neck and drop his head slightly so he can lean into the connection that your hands have with the bit. He’s trusting you.”

In that moment, I could feel exactly what she was describing. In the beginning, when I was unclear about where I was headed with him, he was all over the place. When the connection between the reins and his mouth was too loose, he slowed down, and when it was too tight, he stopped. But when it was just right, he drove himself forward in a pleasant, smooth, consistent, confident manner.

When my calves were in consistent contact with his sides, he used his hind end to propel himself, stretching his back and curving that beautiful, powerful neck of his. He was focused and relaxed and, because I’m not as strong as I used to be, when my calves lost contact or got fatigued or were inconsistent, his pace replicated my calves – inconsistent and a little bit bumpy.

At one point, when the instructor asked me to change direction, my hand action was too quick, and instead of smoothly maintaining his pace and doing a lovely turn, he turned too tight and lost his momentum. My ride became choppy again, and I suddenly had to do a bunch of unanticipated work to help him regain his stride and focus.

It was in those moments that I was reminded of my conversation with this nonprofit and, frankly, with every other client I work with who struggles with motivating staff, holding them accountable, and helping them find where they best support the achievement of the organizational or company goals.

You see, it’s the responsibility of leadership to provide strategic direction. This is done by setting clear goals for the organization or the company. Leaders become the rider with their eyes focused ahead on the destination, not looking down at staff or the tasks in a micromanagement type of way.

Leaders need to show up with an energy that says, “We are headed there! See it?” That point out there. And we are going to get there together within this frame. You will use your energy and your skills, and we, as leaders, will do our best not to make sudden movements or be unclear with our communication.

“You will feel our consistent and steady support, and we will be ready to push a tad more if we feel you begin to lose momentum. We expect you to not push against us, but to lean into the goal and drive toward achievement, and most importantly, when we achieve the goal, we will release the pressure. We will rest a little bit and we will celebrate, and then collect ourselves and set off again.”

This particular client has not yet set a strategic plan, and so the staff does not yet have clearly-defined goals. For them, right now, everything is possible because nothing is defined. It’s the same way with the horse…

If I left the reins loose and my legs limp and didn’t have an eye on a destination or an intention, the horse would either stand in place, wander to the nearest patch of grass or, if he felt a little spunky, he might play.

You see, horses are not unlike your staff. They don’t mind working, and they enjoy a goal or a destination. But without one, they take care of themselves first. They expend energy to meet a need: they wander to find forage, they run to avoid perceived danger or chaos, and they rest when there is nothing to push against, conserving their energy for the next time they need to run.

In organizations that are constantly putting out fires instead of focusing on established goals, staff members become like horses who are in a constant state of confusion and overstimulation. Staff either react to every little cue or piece of information with a fast, big, and often dramatic movement or they become numb to input.

Lesson horses do the same. Inconsistent riders who nag-nag-nag but are not clear, end up with a horse who is either jumpy from trying constantly to respond to cues or who tunes them out and moves at a slow pace regardless of the intensity of their cue.

So if you are a staff person at a nonprofit or a for-profit company, and you don’t know the strategic plan of your organization or the goals you are expected to contribute to – ask.

Request a meeting. Get clarification and ask for the kind of rider that you need leadership to be. If it feels impossible for your supervisor to become that kind of rider, then you will need to become your own: identify your strongest muscles, know where your power and strength are generated from, and use those to be a contributor to goal achievement. Help your supervisor understand what your strengths are, and teach them how to activate those strengths.

If you are someone who has never taken a strengths assessment or you are unclear about how to activate and communicate your strengths, I can help you, and then we can have a few follow-up coaching sessions to get you moving forward in the way you want to.

And if you are a leader who is struggling with the transition from being a nagging and confusing rider to smoothly and consistently driving your team to achieve results – let’s talk. I can help you learn to hold the reins in a way that establishes a smooth connection and develops the consistent support that will motivate your staff to use their skills and strengths effectively and with very little drama.

Are you ready to become the rider? Tally-ho!