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Horse Sense

Leadership lessons from learning how to ride a horse

My boyhood dream of being a cowboy drew closer to reality with horseback riding lessons started in the summer. While in the saddle, I realized that leadership lessons were revealing themselves as well. The first lesson is to direct the horse primarily with the legs, not the hands. We are accustomed to steering with our hands from driving and cycling. However, novice hands jerk the head instead of guiding with the legs. This disorients the horse and signals a lack of synchronization with his efforts, resulting in a struggle of wills. We often lament about the heavy hands-on approach of supervisors. We resist when we are being pulled with force rather than being directed with clarity. Leaders need to work with their colleagues, not against them. They need to align efforts and to measure the cadence of others in pursuing harmony of motion.

The second lesson is to sit straight and tall in the saddle. The rider’s body is constantly directing the horse’s body, regardless of the rider’s awareness or intent. Sitting tall in the saddle improves vision and balance. Inadvertent and inattentive leaning causes meandering and wandering. A leader’s vision incorporates scope and depth. To execute his vision, a leader must have self awareness. Mixed signals and unspoken words derail charted courses.

Another lesson is to let the horse know who is driving the bus or steering the ship. Left to his own devices, a horse may not want to go anywhere; he may be content to stay in place. This translates when working with others. It is not a matter of declaring that you are the boss; it is a priority of showing people that you are taking responsibility for moving the team forward, for they can remain in the same place without you.

Happy trails to all the leaders who are willing to saddle up for the long journey.