Horse whispering your way to better leadership

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Spending a day in a field with a group of horses might not seem like the most likely way to develop and hone your leadership skills but Jude Jennison and Emma Taylor, who set up The Leadership Whisperers four years ago, claim that horses can actually teach us how to become better leaders.

Jennison and Taylor believe that growth and leadership happens when you are outside of your comfort zone and that horses mirror our behaviour and give instant, non-judgmental feedback on it. You can then use this ‘feedback’ to determine what skills you have as a leader or in the workplace and what your core strengths and weaknesses are. Even people who are used to working with horses can learn from it, according to Taylor, as 90% of communication between people is non-verbal.

“For those people who do ride, the challenges are different. They are not afraid of leading a horse but suddenly they feel under enormous pressure to “get it right”. This of course is replicated by the fear of performing under pressure at work too. People often say they feel they are under the spotlight and we explain that when we take a leadership role, we are,” Jennison says.

“The best way to learn how to lead and inspire others is when we are out of our comfort zones. Once people realise this, they become more confident in tackling things they don’t know or understand and that increased confidence leads to substantial changes in behaviour and better results.”

Jennison and Taylor, who both have a corporate background (Emma was formerly an HR business partner for the likes of GE and Sara Lee and Jude spent 16 years at IBM) say that a one-day workshop can help identify a team’s core strengths and weaknesses and how they can work more effectively together.

Emma had ridden for most of her life but Jude had a deep-rooted fear of horses until around seven years ago when she decided to try and overcome her fears and took a short leadership course with horses. “The way that people relate to horses and how horses respond to them can help them understand their personal impact in a range of situations and to understand their team dynamics and default patterns of behaviour,” says Taylor.

The leadership courses can benefit both archetypal ‘extroverts’ and ‘introverts’ according to Jennison. “We begin the day observing the horses in a field in silence. The introverts have a chance to reflect and observe their equine learning partners. It’s a chance to tap into how they feel and be curious about what is happening – both crucial elements of leadership that are often overlooked,” she notes. “Meanwhile, the extroverts often find themselves out of their comfort zone, eager to “do something”, sometimes even bored because the horses aren’t doing enough. At once, we’re on a level playing field.”

Jennison cites a recent example of working with an extroverted ‘brutal’ boss of a large company who wanted to find a more sensitive and collaborative way of managing his colleagues. “He worked with us to explore how he could be more compassionate and get results by building better relationships and bringing his team with him without force,” she explains. “Working with the horses, he realised that being brutal would not make them move. Instead, he found a way of being more kind, caring and compassionate. By combining this with his focus on getting the job done, he was able to be more assertive without being coercive. His team gave him more respect and, once he realised this, he was able to show his caring side more readily.”

Elinor Perry, managing director of Pentlands Accountants, who also recently went on the course, says the horses helped her and her team provide some clarity on where their communication could be improved. “We now have a greater understanding of each other and can provide better feedback to support each member of the team. Many of the team now have more confidence to step up and take the lead more readily,” she notes.

Jennison says the courses can also, sometimes, be more effective for men. “For some men, in particular those who are tall or large, they have probably never met someone who is bigger and stronger than them. They don’t realise that they use their physicality to create a sense of security and safety. Once they realise this, they are able to soften their energy be more collaborative and less coercive at work.”

Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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