For the past forty years, I have been an avid rider of horses. I have ridden many different kinds of horses in numerous places. I have had my fair share of falls and accidents, and I have never been deterred- not because I am particularly courageous, but out of inexplicable love and unstoppable passion.
The same can be said of leadership. Once thrown into my first position of responsibility, I have been forever curious about how to operate better, how to motivate, how to inspire, create and bring about change. Like my riding falls, I have had more than my fair share of mistakes. In fact, I can easily make the claim that I have jumped from one mistake to the next.
Falls and mistakes aside, it is amazing what I have learnt from horses and have been able to apply in my professional life. Here are some of my hard-learnt lessons:
1. Your seat, your seat and your seat: Riding horses involves getting many things right at the same time; the exercise requires full physical and mental coordination. As a rider, there are three things you must always remember above all else: your seat, your seat and your seat. Nothing trumps a rider’s seat; it not only provides balance and a good centre of gravity for both horse and rider, but it also ensures safety in the face of an unexpected reaction from your charge. The same applies in leadership; posture is critical. Not only physically, but psychologically; not only for the leader, but for everyone who is interacting with them and looking for signals, direction, reassurance and confidence. A leader is constantly under the microscope, and posture is a barometer.
2. Always look up at the next obstacle you are about to jump over: As a rider, your instinct is to look down at your horse or the fence you are jumping over, but surprisingly, rarely ahead. Riding requires foresight and preparation; it is about anticipation, which is why a rider should always look ahead, rarely ever down. In jumping, this takes a bigger proportion as you should always keep your eyes glued on the next jump. This is what gives direction to your horse- interestingly, where the eyes look, the head turns and the body follows. The same applies to leadership. Your eyes and sight must always be focused on the next step, the next challenge and the next obstacle. This orients you as an individual and also everyone around you.
3. When all the right things do not work, try something else: Like all living creatures, horses respond to stimuli. Interestingly, a horse moves away from a contact, which is why a gentle touch of the leg will send them onward. There are times, however, when despite all the correct instructions (called aids) that a rider gives a horse, it doesn’t provide the expected response hard as the rider may try. A good rider will do something else, counterintuitive as it may be. Good leadership requires exactly that. Often, despite making all the right decisions and moves, a leader may not get the right response. A leader needs to develop the reflex to try something else, unconventional and counterintuitive as it may be. This is not about getting emotional, though sometimes an act may be called for, but it is about having a reservoir of pragmatic aids that can be deployed in the service of a leader’s objective and to obtain a desirable outcome.
4. There is a time for giving direction, and a time for silence: Riding requires constant communication between rider and horse. As a rider, you are constantly asking, you are checking that a horse is listening, you are anticipating, preparing, correcting and supporting. Between one request and another, there needs to be silence especially when the horse complies. This quiet time lasts until the next request. Quiet is an important communication mechanism because it confirms to the horse that it is doing the right thing. A leader’s communication follows the same pattern; a good leader needs to constantly communicate enough to express their view and provide direction but not too much to overburden and overwhelm their team. An effective leader cannot dismiss the power of quiet when all is going according to their instructions. Excess in instruction is equally as detrimental as its paucity.
5. You can always lead a horse to water, but you can never make it drink: We may have all heard the expression, but if you are a rider you know that even this is an almost impossible feat. A horse is phenomenally much stronger than its rider. As a rider, you’d do well to remember it, and therefore you need it to comply with you if you are to ride effectively. Same for people and organizations; an organization is a phenomenally more powerful organism than a single individual. A good leader is wise enough to recognize this, and know that they are able to perform because of trust and the goodwill of their people. Lose sight of that, and an organization is quick to remind you, sometimes much more painfully than a fall from a horse’s back would.
6. The horse knows and feels: Equine signal detection is instantaneous. In a matter of seconds, a horse is able to detect fear from confidence, assertion vs. indecision, knowledge or lack of, capability or its absence. If you thought that a rider tests a horse, think again, for a horse is at it in equal measure. The same goes for organizations and their leaders. As a leader, you are under the microscope … all the time. A wise leader knows that any attempt to be fake will simply not fool the organization, which may not protest, but its people will certainly pick the signals up.
7. No two riding experiences are ever the same: Ride the same horse several days in a row at the same time and under as similar conditions as you can muster, and you will find that no two experiences are exactly the same. Now, try to imagine what would happen if you simply change horses or environments; there, things can vary dramatically. A seasoned rider is psychologically and physically prepared for such an experience, as a good leader should be as well. No two projects, no two days, no two periods, no two interactions are ever the same. To expect they will be is to invite trouble. Sound leadership is, in part, about recognizing such important nuances and continuously preparing for them.
An ancient Japanese sword master once said that “the sword is unfathomable.” It was a poetic way to express the infiniteness of swordsmanship. The same can be said of riding as well as of leadership. In both cases, there is a universe of learning to be acquired, and there are transferrable lessons if you possess a keen eye, have an open mind and spirit, and are willing to try.