Horses can teach us a thing or two about running a business – or a country.
We talk about humans having to “train” horses to do things, like pull a coach or run fast, but it turns out the animals have the edge on us when it comes to more subtle stuff such as emotional intelligence and inspiring leadership.
This truth is grimly ironic in the coronavirus lockdown, with thousands of South Africa’s thoroughbreds facing being put to death unless our government ministers take a leadership decision to allow racing in the country to resume soon.
The obvious question arises: are our politicians leading us wisely and empathetically?
Google “horses” and “leadership” and the results unveil scores of business and entrepreneurship gurus extolling the virtues of the gee-gees and research about equine herd strategies.
It mostly boils down to horses not being impressed by pompous-sounding titles and bossy behaviour. You have to work cleverly to convince them to obey commands; you need to convey an aura of calmness, control and good old common sense.
One American online business coach, Emily Rogers, puts it like this: “Horses, like most people, are attracted to grounded, centred and coherent energy that indicates the landscape is safe for work and play. Leadership requires constant self-awareness, making it necessary to be mindful and in tune with your emotions.
“Leaders that are not aware of their emotions and how their emotions are driving their behaviour can unknowingly create an environment of fear, chaos and drama, rather than one of trust, collaboration and respect. One of the most important responsibilities of a leader is to create an emotional field that provides the psychological conditions necessary for team members to thrive.”
Rogers then writes of the example of shared, not hierarchical, leadership in wild equine herds. The herd leader – often a mare – must prove herself each day or she will be displaced. This usually won’t be through fighting or violence but simply by winning the trust of a majority. Former rivals of an accepted leader fall into line and find another role in the collective.
Can we dream of politicos doing that?
A herd has many leaders – protectors, scouts, party-starters, etc, all with different strengths and styles – and they all work together and stay together for the good of the herd.
No wonder business schools have started to take equine leadership seriously.
Not long ago, such touchy-feely executive training was considered profoundly naff, with visions of a boss murmuring and posturing like horse whisperer Monty Roberts to get lazy employees to put in a decent day’s work. Some of us learnt about productivity from being thrashed and yelled at and, hey, we turned out OK. Didn’t we?
Author of the book The Power of the Herd, Linda Kohanov, says we can learn much from basic horse behaviour, which she puts thus:
“That fourth point is key,” reckons Kohano. “Unlike humans, horses don’t endlessly mull over the details of uncomfortable situations or spin stories; they let the emotion go and get back on task.” In other words, we shouldn’t dwell on and whine about something in the past.
This is one element of the “coolness” of horses that allows them to twist humans around their little hooves.
Many world “leaders” – queens, sheiks and business barons – go all gooey inside at the mere sight of a steed’s dappled flank and dark, mysterious eye.
These worthies then chuck fortunes at feeding and grooming the beasts, completely forgetting the thrifty strategies, fiscal discipline, investment principles and, perhaps, low cunning that amassed their fortunes in the first place. They are meekly led by horses who never bring the returns demanded from business investments.
An obvious question arises: if horses can command such a willing following with their leadership wiles, shouldn’t we be locking up the politicians in stables for a while. A long while.
A comedian might say you wouldn’t be able to distinguish one horse’s posterior from another.
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