Leadership Lessons: Get Some Horse Sense

Horse Leadership

The horse before me was huge—18.2 hands high with a muzzle as big as my entire face. Galen didn’t know me or trust me, but it was somehow my job to lead this colossal animal through an obstacle course. How had I gotten myself into this mess?

Well, I’d ended up in daylong class taught by June Gunter, Ed.D. and her staff of humans and horses—including Galen. Gunter is co-founder and CEO of TeachingHorse, a leadership development company based on a horse farm in Eastern North Carolina. Gunter’s “faculty” is a small herd of horses led by a lead mare named Yani.

Gunter began her career in leadership development, after having earned her doctorate in adult learning and organizational psychology. But even with all that book learning, she felt she was coming up short when it came to really helping people learn how to lead their teams effectively. “I had been working in the field of leadership development for 15 years when it hit me that most of what we understood about how to lead was no longer true or useful,” Gunter recalls. To really help people learn how to lead, she decided to return to what she’d learned during her time growing up among horses.

Get Some Horse Sense

Horses can teach us pretty much all we need to know about leadership, Gunter says. More importantly, horses can give us deep insight into who we are as leaders so that we can guide our teams successfully. Within a few moments of meeting me, Galen had sized me up as a leader. He wasn’t having any of it, and he certainly wasn’t going to follow me anywhere.

Galen’s recalcitrance was frustrating. I’ve always prided myself on being a good student and a good leader, darn it, and this was a leadership class, for heaven’s sake. I’d listened very carefully to everything Gunter had said about horse behavior, and my mind was busily applying all her teachings to my assignment—to lead Galen through a few pylons. My frenzied brain was running on all cylinders and I was trying my hardest, but Galen wouldn’t budge.  Gently—but insistently—he simply nuzzled my neck.

“Stop thinking,” Gunter suggested. “Galen just wants to be with you for a minute without doing anything.” Horses connect with one another by sharing one another’s breath, she explained. “Just be still with him and breathe with him,” she instructed.

I’m a busy gal who likes to get things done, so this ‘be still and breathe’ advice went against all of my instincts. But I followed Gunter’s instructions anyway. Everything stopped as Galen and I simply stood there and breathed. After less than a minute of this, we flawlessly completed the little obstacle course.

Connect before You Direct

In just a few moments, Galen had sensed, distilled, and found ways to counterbalance my biggest weaknesses as a leader—weaknesses I’ve grappled with my entire career. I overthink and I rush. Leading effectively requires much more than the knowledge, strategy, and tactics that your intellect gives you. It also requires emotional intelligence (EQ)—the willingness to lead with the heart as well as the mind.

Ever since that day on the obstacle course with Galen, I’ve tried to slow down and make time to connect with team members. Sometimes, this has seemed counterintuitive for me: surely it’s better to do heads down work than to jaw around in a coffee shop with a colleague talking about our challenges at work, our plans, and our lives outside work. But actually … it isn’t. Taking time to connect actually takes less time in the long run because it actually makes leadership tasks easier. Thanks to what Galen taught me, my team understands our broader goals better, and they can work without as much day-to-day guidance from me because I am spending more time developing them as people and less time managing tasks.

Savvy practice administrators also understand the power of connection, and they make time for their managers and teams to connect even amidst busy, complex scheduling. Clinical flow consultant Jane Shuman, COT, OCS, CMSS recommends that practices schedule everyone’s lunch during the same slot so that team members have the daily option of downtime with their colleagues. Similarly, Dr. Craig Piso suggests that surgeons briefly huddle with staff outside the highly structured OR environment to review what surgical staff did well and to brainstorm how the team can improve.

“Horses have much to teach us about leading in complex, uncertain environments that result in agile, adaptive organizations. Horses have been creating healthy, sustainable communities for millions of years. They have learned to masterfully navigate uncertainty on a constant, moment- by-moment basis.”—June Gunter et al.

Lead with Congruence

Horses will not follow you unless they sense congruence between how you are feeling and what you are asking them to do, Gunter emphasizes. The humans you lead are not much different. People sense if you are projecting certainty or confidence you’re not really feeling. Your team will help you accomplish difficult projects if you are open enough to be congruent with them.

Many business books emphasize that leaders should be optimistic, but pure optimism simply won’t get the job done because your team will sense the inherent dissonance between what you’re saying and what you’re feeling internally. More effective is openly acknowledging what Good to Great author Jim Collins calls ‘the brutal facts’ of your current situation. To lead your team through productive change, you must recognize the current reality, voice your own feelings about it, acknowledge your team’s feelings about it, and still lead everyone towards your collective goal. Your team will trust you and trust themselves if you lead with congruence. Collins calls this leadership model “the Stockdale Paradox”: You must maintain the “unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Walk Alongside Your Team, but Remember to Look Ahead

As my day leading Galen progressed, the obstacle courses became more difficult. I learned it was best to walk alongside him, and to communicate often. At one point, however, we stalled.

“Galen doesn’t know where you’re going because you’re not looking toward your end point often enough,” Gunter commented. Once I learned to look ahead every once in awhile, Galen and I began to make progress again.

Horses demand that you acknowledge what’s up close while still showing them the ultimate goal. Their eyes actually operate like bifocals: they see near objects clearly through the lower halves of their eyes and they use the upper halves of their eyes to see distant objects. The humans you’re leading also need this dual perspective from you. They need you to articulate broader goals for the practice every once in awhile and to help them understand how their day-to-day work fits into those goals. They also need you to help them envision where they’re going in their own careers.

Embrace Shared Leadership

Wild horses organize themselves into what Gunter calls “the diamond model of leadership.” Even the horses in her small Eastern North Carolina herd organize themselves this way.

Horses choose leaders that demonstrate four capabilities, Gunter explains:

  1. Leaders must demonstrate that they are paying attention and can detect even the most subtle shifts in the environment.
  2. Leaders are able to give clear direction on how to respond to the shifts.
  3. Leaders are able to follow that direction with focused energy, providing the herd with guidance on the pace with which to respond.
  4. Leaders display congruence of their inner and outer expressions.

Horses understand that there’s more than one way to lead and they share leadership responsibilities for the good of the herd.

  • The lead mare sets the herd’s direction and pace. She positions herself at the head of the diamond, crystallizing their objectives and making the decisions necessary to help the herd respond well to threats or change. The horses in the herd trust her judgment, and she is an excellent teacher. In many practices, the practice administrator has a lead mare leadership style.
  • The sentinels position themselves on the two outer sides of the diamond. These detail-oriented types gather information and alert the herd to dangers. (Horses have nearly 360-degree vision.) If they were trying to lead on their own, the sentinels would be nervous Nellies lost amidst all the details they notice. But in a shared leadership model, they are essential to the herd’s wellbeing. (Think about the biller doggedly tracking the EHR glitch that’s causing denials or the compliance officer who won’t rest until the practice does its required OSHA training.)
  • The lead stallion positions himself at the back of the diamond. He keeps the herd together, protects it from predators, and provides the energy and encouragement the herd needs to move forward. Think about the physician champions you choose when your practice embarks on a clinical trial or an EHR install.

Were the lead stallion leading on his own, his leadership would be ineffective because he would simply “throw energy at confusion,” Gunter says. But combined with the lead mare’s direction and the sentinels’ watchfulness, the lead stallion’s leadership style works well and benefits everyone.

Develop Your Successors

The horses within the diamond aren’t mere followers because horses clearly understand the need to develop leaders for the future. So they shift leadership roles from time to time to give their core leadership team a rest and to test leadership styles and abilities among younger horses in the herd. Think of it as a succession plan. In Gunter’s herd, for example, lead mare Yani is teaching her daughter, Grace (currently a sentinel) to be lead mare someday—so Grace sometimes heads up the diamond. Is your practice identifying and training folks in the herd to be leaders for special projects and for the future?

Further reading

‘Working with horses to develop shared leadership skills for nursing executives,’ by June Gunter, Paula Berardinelli, Barbara Blakeney, Linda Cronenwett, and Joan Gurvis. Organizational Dynamics (2017) 46: 57-63.

Find out more about TeachingHorse at www.teachinghorse.com.

Find out more about Jim Collins’ concepts:


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