Lessons in leadership can come from some very unusual sources.
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Most of us remember an inspirational school teacher who brought a subject to life and fired our enthusiasm. Or a stirring speech, brilliantly delivered or even a particularly stimulating course. But, as we all know from experience, traditional learning methods don’t always work: being ‘talked at’ by an expert is often stifling; wading through a textbook, even a good one, can be laborious and unrewarding.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to absorbing new information and improving your skill set. Often unconventional methods surpass traditional ones, as I found when I shunned the classroom and headed to the countryside to learn leadership skills in the company of horses (Leaders by Nature with Jude Jennison). Here are four things they taught me that no amount of PowerPoint could.
Using confidence and empathy
I was told to take my horse by the reins and lead it round two barrels and back. Horses don’t always behave in the way you expect; try and encourage them to go somewhere and they might start pulling in the opposite direction.
This behaviour isn’t just confined to the paddock. The horses reminded me that successful leadership is as much about confidence, purpose and composure as anything. Once I learned to establish these early on, the horses stopped when I stopped and set off again when I set off.
As in the workplace, to be a successful leader you need to be both confident and empathetic, assertive and supportive. Striking that balance is crucial.
Trust is always earned
It may sound like a truism, but trust is always earned. To do this takes time and emotional investment. I was given a whip and slowly and gently got the horse moving (the whip is never used for actual whipping, of course). Once respect was established, and if the horse trusted me, it would follow me when I turned my back. Again, it worked best when I was relaxed and confident.
Trust and respect are two-way things. You don’t achieve them by being overly assertive or aggressive, at least not in any meaningful way. Even if you’re a proven manager remember it’s not always easy to convince people to follow your lead immediately. Be patient and adaptive depending on the personality of your colleagues and the context of the business situation.
You don’t always need to lead from the front
At times, the office environment creates tensions. Restabilising with a sense of teamwork and drawing on everyone’s unique skill base can help overcome them. Encouraging yourself and others to step away from tried and trusted methods also bears fruit, as I learned during my day with the horses.
We set up three elaborate obstacle courses and navigated around them: first leading the horse from the front, then the rear, then the side. Although the more natural leadership position in front seemed most comfortable at first, I found I could actually lead from any position when required to do so.
More than anything else, this exercise taught me not to get disheartened when things didn’t work out the way I envisaged. If success eludes you, stay calm and focused on the objective. Try different approaches to leadership such as allowing others to step up with your support behind them: the results may surprise you.
The importance of self-awareness
It is tempting to view certain people as natural born leaders. Usually it’s more complicated than that. I learned things about myself during my training session with the horses. For example, I noticed I was more apprehensive in the run-up to a new task. I know I am good at my job, but I recognise that I prefer operating within my comfort zone. This can have an impact on leadership when it comes to new challenges.
Being self-aware and prepared to work hard to improve your own skill set helps you get the most out of your team. A leader must approach a task with confidence and decisiveness otherwise, just like horses, people won’t listen. Reminding yourself to trust in your own abilities, as well as your team’s, will not only make you a more successful leader, it will also create a calm working environment for everyone.
In a clearly structured business - such as an agency - you can start to lead a team very early on; often just a year or so into your first role. But building up your experience alone isn’t enough. Leadership takes practice, just like any other skill. There was no better way to reexamine and refresh my methods than in the company of these sensitive and intuitive animals.