Recently, I went to see “Buck,” a critically acclaimed documentary that highlights the life and work of Buck Brannaman, one of America’s greatest horsemen and horse trainers. The movie is about horse-human relationships. Buck doesn’t help people with horse problems, he helps horses with people problems.But, there’s a lot more going on in the movie than inspiring people to make changes in how they interact with horses. The movie touches a chord in non-horse people, too. My friend, Laura, who is content to admire horses from a distance, went to see the movie with me. She was moved to tears as well as surprise and delight. On more than one occasion, she clutched my arm and whispered loudly ‘Wow! Did you see that?!’Later, I asked Laura why the movie had made such an impression on her. She thought about it for a minute. ‘Well, in a way, it’s not a movie about horses. It’s about how to build relationships with people and be a better person, too.’ Here are some insights from the movie that remind me about what horses have to teach us about trust, respect, and partnership that can help us be better leaders.
Learn about others before asking them to follow you
In the movie, Buck frequently asks questions about the horses that help him understand the horses and their owners before he starts working with them. Buck never assumes that his vast knowledge of people and horses means he knows about that particular person and that particular horse. He takes each horse as an individual. Is it frightened? Disrespectful? How old is the horse? How much contact has it had with people? Does it understand what he’s asking it to do? With that information, how can he help the horse? Imagine what you might discover about your team if, as their leader, you approached each person with this curiosity and openness.
Encourage what works
Horses get discouraged and stop learning when we concentrate too hard on ‘getting it right.’ Our focus can become perfection and our approach rigid. In fact, we end up fixated on what’s not working. Buck demonstrates how little and immediate corrections, combined with gentle and immediate acknowledgments, reinforce self-confidence and motivate a horse to do what we ask. It works with people, too.
It’s about balance
All great horsemen understand that it’s important to find that balance between being as gentle as possible and as firm as necessary. It’s called ‘feel’ and it’s all about knowing when it’s time to be soft and subtle, and when to take hold and mean it, to apply as much pressure as it takes to get a change. As balanced leaders, we learn how to take hold and how to let go. How to motivate without coddling. How to be clear in our expectations without trying to control or fight with others. How to get people out of their comfort zone without paralyzing them with fear.
Whatever is going on with your people is about you
A horse person understands and takes to heart that any issue with a horse is usually not about the horse at all. Rather, it’s about what the horse is reflecting back to you. As Buck says, ‘Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will.’ It’s a lesson in humility and courageous practice for us to stop and ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing as a leader to contribute to this? What do I need to shift?’
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll see this moving and powerful movie. When you have (or if you have already seen it), I invite you to share with me what you learn.