Equine experiential learning can help teach leadership development skills for the new millennium.
By Lisa, Murrell, ICF Certified Coach, MetaSystem Consulting Group
Research at the Institute of HeartMathtells us that the heart has an electromagnetic field 5,000 times greater than that of our brain, and that this field can be measured up to 10 feet away! Thisfield is our body’s automatic response to spatial proximity; it is our own natural boundary and plays a dynamic, and, for the most part, unconscious, role not only in leadership development, but our lives in general.
This information isn’t something we learn in school or any leadership development curriculum. In fact, for most of us, this feeling of interacting with our environment and trusting it through electromagnetic fields sounds like science fiction or new-age mumbo jumbo. But it is at work on an unconscious level nonetheless and it is one of the most untapped resources in developing powerful leadership.
Leaders who cannot embrace the concept that much of their power and success, or lack of it, is based upon unconscious influences such as their heart’s electromagnetic field and its influence on their relationships, are finding that guiding an organization or team to success a much bigger challenge than it ever has been.
Traditional leadership development focuses upon qualities such as charisma, integrity, values, loyalty, mental awareness, ability to influence—all critical aspects of leadership. However, how does one teach and learn these skills? Leadership for the new millennium requires different skills, teaching and learning. This is where a ground-breaking approach to leadership comes in: equine experiential learning.
Horses are social creatures that readily and honestly respond to the challenges inherent in forming and sustaining relationships. As animals that are preyed upon in nature, they also have retained a highly developed ability to sense changes in the stance and arousal level of other herd members, an ability they easily transfer to interactions with human beings. Horses see through the slightest incongruities of emotion and intention; subtle, as well as critical, leadership skills.
Working with horses provides a way for people to become aware of their heart’s electromagnetic field, their body’s natural sensory device, and the messages they are “sending out” unconsciously. This information provides insights into why leaders continually create situations that don’t work. A case in point is David, an SVP at a prominent oil company.
David was in trouble; he had gone too far and stepped on too many toes. Although he was a brilliant innovator and delivered powerful results, it was costing too much through his leadership style. I recommended a private leadership intensive with the horses: “Communication for Authentic Leadership.”
The intensive was a mix of experiential learning with horses and integration of newly discovered insights into traditional leadership materials. Shortly upon his arrival, I knew what horses we needed to work with: Simon, a 16.3-hand Thoroughbred gelding and the dominant member of the Equine Alchemy herd, and Seamus, a 17-hand Oldenburg paint—a frisky teenager at six and very adept at testing awareness and relationship.
One of the first interactions with the horses was a simple leading exercise where David explored the “head, heart, and gut” styles of leadership. The objective of the exercise is, through leading the horse, to gain insight into one’s “default” position regarding which of those three styles they most often act from.
Simon was haltered with a long lead rope. David was asked to lead Simon around an arena while focusing on his head, heart, and gut, respectively, and observing the difference in the quality of the experience. Although David had witnessed a demonstration of Simon being lead with a slack lead rope by a petite woman, when he took Simon by the lead rope, heproceeded to literally pull and yank Simon around the arena. At one point I became concerned for my horse; their stress level is a direct response to the stress of the client. Simon’s reaction to the stress mirrored David’s masculine dominance, and he, therefore, become highly agitated. I suggested that David let go of his tight grip on the lead rope, but he didn’t hear me; he was too involved in controlling the situation. Finally, Simon had to be taken from him for the safety of each.
This was a powerful experience for David that offered opportunities for learning about his leadership style:
Leading from the Head—David’s default leadership position was to act from the head, or cognitive center, alone. His experience of the leading exercise was one of projecting his own fears onto the horse. He used phrases such as “He (Simon) is testing me. He is trying to see who is boss. I need to make sure he knows who is boss, etc.” The entire time was spent establishing who was in charge by controlling Simon with an unnecessarily harsh hold on him.
Leading from the Heart—David had no “control” over Simon when he led from the heart, or the emotional center. For him, there was no connection with the horse if he couldn’t use force. As far as David was concerned, there was no relationship with Simon; just a task to be accomplished and a means by which to do that.
Leading from the Gut—When David led from the gut, the power center, the interaction with Simon escalated into a power struggle that began energetically, but with a 1,200-pound horse, quickly became a potential physical danger. His lack of awareness and disregard for the relationship resulted in an exercise in power vs. force.
David’s leadership style was criticized back at work as being too harsh with little or no relationship. Through this one experiential exercise with horses, David experienced immediate feedback from his leadership style in a way he could not ignore. When faced with a task, he had no awareness of the dynamic between him and Simon, which resulted in his inability to be in relationship and, therefore, creating a block in accomplishing the task. David came to us not understanding why he couldn’t get done what he was so qualified to do. Through this exercise he was beginning to realize that how he was “being” and “not being” was creating his ineffective leadership style.
David’s challenges in the arena mirrored his challenges at work and created an opportunity to shift this paradigm of control to one of awareness and relationship; a perspective he so badly needed to evolve his own leadership style. The equine leadership experience allowed him to understand and integrate the potential of boundary awareness and relationship in leadership through working with another sentient being that wasn’t on his payroll.
This was just one of the experiences David had during our work together that enabled him to step into a new level of leadership. Months later, David still says that the equine leadership experience changed his life. He decided he needed a clean start for his “new” life and left the oil company. After a sabbatical with his wife, David began another successful career with a new set of awareness and skills; ones that are serving him and his organization well.
Lisa Murrell is the founder of MetaSystem Consulting Group and Equine Alchemy. She is the author of “Inspiring Real Change: Using Systemic Experiential Learning to Develop Systems, Organizations, Teams, and Individuals.” Murrell brings a ground-breaking approach to leadership development through experiential learning with horses. For more information, visit www.metacg.com or www.equinealchemy.com. To contact Murrell, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.