I often marvel at the leadership similarities between horses and people. Beginning with this issue, I will periodically share some of the insights I – and many of my clients – have discovered by spending time with and learning about leadership from horses.
Phoxxberry has always been the alpha, or lead gelding, of the Epona Meadows herd. He maintains an unmistakable leadership strength and presence, even though he is crippled with arthritis and a degenerative disease of his suspensory ligaments. Retired from winning championships in the show ring and cantering the endurance trail, he now hobbles around the farm. Yet, the minute you meet him, you know who’s in charge.
I have often wondered what is it about Phoxx, with his physical infirmity, that allows him to keep his position within the herd. Horses do not confer leadership to weak horses, physically or otherwise. They do not determine leadership through a promotion, a new office, or a change in somebody’s job description. Herds grant leadership to horses that are good leaders, whether they are physically compromised or not.
Phoxx is a good leader because he has a tenacious willingness to negotiate his leadership every day. He doesn’t assume that because he was the leader yesterday, he will be the leader today. Sometimes the other horses challenge Phoxx. This doesn’t mean they want to be the leader themselves – in fact, most horses prefer that another horse has the job, because it takes a lot of energy. It is, however, normal for every horse to periodically challenge others for its place in the herd.
We, too, are sometimes challenged by the people we lead. Especially during times of change and transition, they want to know if they can count on us to maintain our vision, inspire their confidence, and provide them direction during times of uncertainty. What I have learned from Phoxx are three disciplines of practice:
- Maintain a credible presence. Phoxx greets each day with a magnificent certitude that eliminates any doubt about his leadership capacity. Apparently, he has no idea that he isn’t physically fit to lead a herd of horses. Every horse on the farm can out walk and out run him. Yet, they respectfully wait for him to hobble on his stiff hind legs from the paddock to the pasture. He is always first through the gate.
Phoxx reminds me that leadership has everything to do with excellence rather than competitiveness. He embodies what it means to give your personal best, to know your greatest strengths and passions, and to emphasize them while honestly admitting and managing your weaknesses. He inspires trust because of who he is and the herd looks to him for guidance, support, and direction.
- Provide clear direction and take appropriate action. Phoxx does not waste energy ‘bossing’ the other horses around or flagrantly displaying power. In fact, he doesn’t tolerate it from any horse in the herd. If a younger horse starts bothering the oldest horse, Phoxx gives them a warning look and subtle swish of his tail or flick of his ear. If needed, he snakes out his neck and tosses his head, as if to say “Show respect, please.” If that fails, he offers a swift correction with flattened ears and bared teeth, restoring order along with a sense of security. His communication is appropriate to the circumstances and the response he gets, no more and no less. Like horses, the people we lead look forward to being with and doing things for leaders who know how to make clear requests with good timing and the appropriate level of energy.
- Pay attention. Phoxx is aware of what goes on within the herd and the herd’s environment. He greets each horse daily with soft whickers and snuffles, as if to kindly inquire, ‘How are you today?’ He also lets them know what is and what is not important. If a squirrel scampers down a tree trunk chirruping, he keeps grazing. If a bobcat slinks through the pasture on its way to see if the neighbor’s sleeping cat can be caught unawares on the front porch, Phoxx snorts a ‘heads up, guys’, and the entire herd stays on alert, grass hanging from their mouths, until the bobcat passes through. He instills confidence that he is on top of things.
Every morning, Phoxx greets me with a happy whinny from the top of the hill. He is ready for the day and the unfolding moments of leadership that await him. How ready are you?