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Horses and Symbiotic Leadership

As many of you will know from previous blogs (and my profile photo is a bit of a giveaway) I love my horses. 

I’ve only ever owned two; my old boy, who is now 28 and Merlin, now 14, who I bought as an unhandled 3-year-old and trained using natural horsemanship techniques. (A bit of a mad adventure for a 40-something with no experience, but honestly, the most powerful learning experience of my life.)

Let me be clear: I am not an accomplished rider. For various reasons, I didn’t have riding lessons as a child. (Mum’s nervousness of horses, and a lack of money stand out as reasons for this, alongside Dad’s desire to push me towards what he probably considered more gender appropriate activities, like football – there’s a story for another time.)

Anyway, the point is, when people talk about flying changes and suchlike, I really have no idea what they’re on about. And I’m not quite sure what goes on at gymkhanas; the inclusion of the word gym is enough to put me off wanting to.  

But, despite my lack of formal training, I’ve realised that I have something that is quite special – a relationship that means I can ride out alone knowing my horse trusts me enough to let me take him down paths that he doesn’t know, and which are sometimes scary. To be honest, I didn’t know this was special, until I realised that a lot of horse owners don’t do it. 

In the last two weeks, Merlin and I have explored forest trails that have fizzled out into nothing, leaving us trying to pick our way through undergrowth and over broken trees Indiana Jones style. We’ve run the gauntlet between houses with hordes of dogs barking and jumping at the fences on either side. We’ve crossed scary streams and ridden across dams next to waterfalls and lakes. We’ve passed tractors, huge log-laden lorries and dirt bikes. We’ve had to squeeze round a pickup truck full of baying dogs belonging to La Chaisse (the hunt is very active in France this time of the year).

Merlin has taken all this in his stride. That’s not to say he’s always relaxed. I know he’s nervous when he starts snorting like a pig, which is my cue to reassure him. Sometimes, I demonstrate just how relaxed I am by whistling a happy tune, as the latest hazard hurtles towards us. Sometimes, when I’m not sure of the route to take (like when we ran out of path and found ourselves scrambling through undergrowth) I’ll get off and lead. Most of the time, when he’s facing an obstacle that’s new, I’ll let him work things out for himself.

The thing I love about my relationship with Merlin is that it’s what I call symbiotic. Symbiotic not in a strictly scientific sense, but in the sense of interdependence. When I ride, I am entirely dependent on Merlin for my safety and success, and, of course, he is equally dependent on me. 

The whole basis of this relationship is mutual trust. It is not power, and it is certainly not fear; I have never, for example, carried or used a whip. Merlin has never even worn a bit.

I was thinking about this after discussing on LinkedIn last week the leadership styles portrayed on programmes like The Apprentice. I am not an admirer of Lord Sugar, simply because I think his ‘act’ legitimises old stereotypical ideas of leadership and bullying that have no place in the modern business world. If this is a role-model for success, I’ll take failure any day thanks. 

For me, leadership, true leadership, is embodied in that relationship I have with Merlin. It’s symbiotic. None of us can achieve success in isolation of our teams, and, if we’re doing our job right, they need what we bring to the table too in terms of vision, energy, support, encouragement, direction when needed, clarity of purpose, and empowerment etc. 

To be honest, I believe that when I’m with Merlin, I’m the best leader I can be. I’d go further and say I’m the best person I can be and if I can take a little bit of that learning and experience into the workplace, everyone benefits. 

If you’re looking for a slightly self-indulgent cringe fest, here is a link to a video I made to record my experience of training Merlin. More importantly, if you want training materials that promote leadership based on trust, you’ll find loads in Trainers’ Library. Just let me know if you need help choosing which to use in your workshops and courses, or post a question in Design Coach

Until next time…

February 22 2022Rod Webb

Rod Webb

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