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ColleagueCorner-A Penny for your Thoughts:Leadership Lessons from a Horse

Posted by Karen Pery on 03/22/2016

A little more than 100 miles outside of Los Angeles in a quaint, rural town most people know by the Pinot Noirs featured in the film Sideways and home to the estate of the late Michael Jackson, are some of the finest leaders I’ve had the privilege to know and serve. They continue to call forth my evolution as a leader and they do so without uttering a single word. If you really want to break through to your next level of leadership, ask a horse to show you what you need to see. 

Penny, a chestnut mare, is a formerly wild mustang. She’s a clever girl, known to unlock the gate of her pasture liberating herself and her friends. Well loved and trained to be ridden, she is the dominant mare in the herd of more than thirty wild and domestic horses at our ranch near Santa Barbara, California.

As herd leader, she is hyper-aware of what is happening inside and outside of the group, constantly assessing risks and potential threats. It’s her job to correct behavior of other horses to help keep everyone safe in their pasture. Strong and clearly in charge, she communicates frequently. She is consistent, fast, and fair and direct.

Now imagine what it’s like to lead a leader like Penny. If you’re riding Penny, she has to trust that you are capable of leading her. She must know without question that you are taking care of her so that she doesn’t have to take care of herself or her herd – and until she believes you, she will test you again and again and again because she truly wants to partner with you. She demands your confidence, and she needs to believe that you believe you can lead her and that you will consistently follow through to keep her safe.

If she’s not convinced of your leadership presence or abilities, she’ll do what she needs to do to take care of herself. On a ride, that might look like stopping abruptly, changing direction, and heading home without being asked or turning sideways down a hill and taking you for an unexpected adventure into the trees.

As a mentor, Penny illuminates your blind spots as a leader. The one time I fell off while riding, it wasn’t her fault or a freak accident. She was going faster than I was comfortable, and I didn’t know how to ask her to stop. I was afraid I’d tell her the wrong thing and she’d actually go faster! Since I wasn’t sure how to ask for what I needed (from Penny or the trainer who was guiding us), I didn’t ask for anything, lost my balance and landed in the dirt – and then of course, she stopped. She was trying to work with me, but I couldn’t see how vital it was for me to speak up and ask for help in order for all of us to work well together.

You take your leadership – or lack of leadership – with you wherever you go. Within the same week I fell off Penny, I received feedback from a team I was leading that I wasn’t communicating enough and my presence was lacking. Coincidence? Hardly. I was leading the horse and the team exactly same way. In both situations, I was in over my head and so focused on my own process and doubts that I missed the opportunity to reach out for support and partnership. I was so afraid of communicating the wrong message, by not communicating at all I made the situation far worse.

Take a lesson from Penny. Leadership challenges are opportunities for your ongoing growth – and they will appear in many forms. Horseman Buck Brannaman said it well: The horse is a mirror to your soul…and sometimes you might not like what you see in the mirror. If you’re willing to look at obstacles as places for you to expand, you will develop greater capacity and range as a leader.

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