Directors learn leadership lessons straight from the horse’s mouth

“If you can’t lead a horse, you shouldn’t be leading people,” so says the director of Impact Leadership, a company dedicated to upskilling New Zealand’s leaders through experiential training.

But what can horses tell you about the way you lead your company? More than you might expect. Impact director, Janine Sudbury, says she has seen leaders emerge in just one day of working with a horse.

“Horses can be brutal,” says Janine. “Their special qualities make them superb training tools and you are guaranteed a one hundred percent honest evaluation of your leadership style. For some, that can be hard to handle.

“I don’t know where you could get such effective and immediate feedback as you get working with the horses. They pick up on your energy and can even match their heartbeat to yours. They are innately designed to read your body language and as such, can’t be fooled. In return, they won’t fool you back; they won’t ingratiate themselves or flatter you. Such is the honesty of a horse’s reaction in giving you instant feedback that you very quickly become hyper sensitive to every message you communicate consciously or unconsciously.”

Impact Leadership has already won enthusiastic review from its corporate clientele who include Downer, Te Puni Kokiri, KiwiRail, Wellington Zoo, Transpower, Medrecruit, ASB bank and NZ Post to name but a few. They have relished the opportunity it offers executives and directors to test their leadership skills on the horses.

The parallels between the corporate world and the equine world are plain to see. Bad horse trainers, like bad company leaders, resort to bullying and intimidating horses into doing what they want. Good trainers learn how to communicate with their horse in order to persuade it to work for them.

Ground breaking research by Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA reveals that seven percent of communication is through words while 55 percent of meaning is communicated by nonverbal gestures. This is the chosen language of the horse whisperer.

“Every gesture you make gets interpreted instantly by a horse and his reaction will expose exactly what you are really communicating not what you intend to communicate,” says Janine.

Once participants have learnt what their body language is really saying, they must use it to motivate their horse to want to work for them. Horses which voluntarily follow instructions because they respect and trust their leader will go the extra mile as opposed to those horses which are forced to obey under coercion. They will find ways to avoid while becoming resentful and often difficult.

Dr Beverley Edlin who is a specialist in board room dynamics and co-director of Valeo International Limited says this is what makes the Impact Leadership programmes such an effective tool for boards.  As she points outs, board members work as a small team bringing different skills, knowledge and experience to the table.  Collectively they have to set a strategic course of action, approve new initiatives, resolve issues while ensuring the business is operating at full strength.  After seeing the Impact Leadership programme in action she says, “It is ideal for boards as it refocuses attention on the importance of good communication through the building of trust – something that is a vital determinant of an effective board”.

This has been echoed by other directors who have taken part in the training. “The level of energy was particularly significant. If the leader’s energy level is low, that’s what they’re going to get.   If their leader’s energy level is high and positive, that’s what they’re going to get as well,” says Ed Bernacki, director of Ideas Factory.

As Janine explains, “You cannot get a more effective training experience as you can with horses. They see straight through the external vaneer of a character and feel the heart and intent of a person. The horse will expose you and react to who you really are which helps you to see where your opportunities are to improve your style and significant impact your growth as a leader.”

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