That Day With The Horses

by | Oct 25, 2022 | Leadership | 0 comments

One of the challenges for anyone in any type of leadership position is getting honest feedback.

We just don’t get it.

And of course we don’t. Inherent in the workplace relationship is that power imbalance. How openly honest and direct will I be to you when you control my career and financial compensation at this company?

We will be as honest as we can, but there will always be a line we won’t cross, no matter how much you say you want full and honest feedback.

Perhaps some sugar coating. Perhaps most of the story.
But will we walk away with out a word when you are acting like a fool?
But horses will.

On my day with the horses I got the best and most thorough feedback about my leadership, specifically my non-verbal communication skills.
And I was able to see the impact when I acted on that feedback: what works and what doesn’t. Like, immediately.

I’m going to share some things that happened but I don’t know if these few words are enough to do the experience justice. And I will add key lessons at the end.

Let me set the scene.
It’s autumn, Northern England. So it’s cold, windy, and rainy. With little spots of sunshine. We’re up high and can see into the distance in all directions: endless fields with the occasional cottage dotted here and there.
I’m in a field with 11 of my fellow leaders, under the guidance of Jude Dennison, leadership coach.

Little snippets
We’re asked to go up to the horses and say hello. As a bunch of hyper achievers who all want to “get this right” and succeed in the task, we set off to greet the horses.

And all the horses moved away from us.

Of course they did. If someone approached you fully focused on ticking the box, anxious about “getting it right” (whatever that means) and fully focused on the task, and not on you, would you hang around to say hello?

Actually, you would hang around because we’ve been conditioned to be polite and stay. We won’t welcome you, but we we will probably politely tolerate you. But how will you know what’s real?

Horses leave you in no doubt: what you are doing right now is not working for me, so I’m off.
Immediate honest feedback.

Teenage snort
For another exercise we had to take turns with a partner, each one to have a conversation with a horse. I dutifully witnessed while my colleague took her turn. I saw another horse, Jack, nearby, snort and prance in agitation, spooked by one of the group, staring at us, looking like he was ready to run. So I had myself a little silent chat with him to calm him down.
Then we debriefed with Jude, and then it was my turn. I’m a good student and wanted to make sure I followed instructions, and did the tasks.

So I approached Jack to have my chat, as instructed. I hadn’t even completed half a thought when he snorted, shook his head, and took off away from me.

“Gad, you’re so ridiculous” rang out loud and clear across the field.

With a “duh, you’ve already had the chat. Why are you still trying?”

It was like when my teen looks at me when I sing and dance in her face. Like I’m a dork (which I am, she’s not wrong).

Jack knew my intention was to do my task, not connect with him. And he was having none of it.

And it hit me, and I laughed at myself. That’s what I do. Try too hard. Got to follow the instructions, follow the process. I had reverted to my default “be good, do the task” that I had not really noticed that I had actually already done it.

In those moments when I was witnessing my colleague, and maintaining awareness of all the horses (who each weighed about 800kg), I had a brief but intensely deep interaction with Jack. I had told him that he was loved, and safe. It came straight from the heart as the thing to do in that moment. It was not a conscious thought, but intuitive.

It’s something I think we all need to hear, more often.

So Jack and I stood there, looking at each other, communicating with our hearts. He settled. I settled. He turned to eat some grass. I turned back to my colleague.

Brief, authentic. Got the job done.

I was ridiculous to have not seen that I had already completed my task. Jack was right, and I’m grateful that he didn’t tolerate my nonsense.

Now I also had a great learning from Cally. But I’ll need to save that for another post.

Insights from my interactions and observations of the group

  • Sometimes we are so busy trying to “do the thing” that we miss that it’s actually happening.
  • We focus on trying to do the right thing – yet rarely can define what the right thing is.
  • We can get so focused on the task ahead of us, that we forget to connect to the person we are working with on a human level.
  • When we aren’t authentic, other people can feel it, and there will be a lack of trust because they know something is off. (and we humans are great at assuming what’s off and make up all sorts of stories: they don’t like me, they are up to something, they think they are better than us etc)
  • Self-starters, initiate takers, action oriented people can be terrible followers.

Actionable Lessons

  • Everything starts with relationship. If we want to do something with others (lead them, run a project, collaborate, negotiate), we need to create the relationship connection first.
  • Connection can be brief but it must be authentic.
  • Your intentions and your thoughts matter, so choose them consciously.
  • Sometimes you’ll show up authentically, sometimes you’ll be distracted by your tasks. You can always adjust.

“What’s a leadership series? How’s it different from the thought series or coaching tips? Good questions.“ This series gives you tips to take your own leadership to the next level, and ways you can extend your own capabilities. Ready to take your skills to the next level, but aren’t sure where to start? Get in touch with me.

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