Leaders and Innovation

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Nonchalantly looking for inspiration…

I stumbled across a talk on the TED website recently. I say stumbled; it was a Sunday morning and I was nonchalantly looking for inspiration with the aid of what I would describe as a confident cup of coffee. Professor Linda Hill of the Harvard Business School gave the talk back in September last year.  It is called, “How to manage for collective creativity”. The title alone peaked my interest.  

What really got my attention though, was when Professor Hill says, “If we want to build organizations that can innovate time and time again, we must unlearn our conventional notions of leadership”. She was able to make a statement like this based on hundreds of hours spent studying 16 men and women, who were dispersed across seven countries, working in 12 different industries. Screeds of field notes were subsequently analysed by her and her research team, and the emergent patterns indicated that ‘conventional’ leadership fails when it comes to innovation.

This struck me too; Professor Hill describes innovation as the product of, ‘trial and error; many false starts, mis-steps and mistakes’. She says it’s about being ‘discovery-driven’, where you act – as opposed to plan – your way to the future’. It resonates with me because she is describing what it is like to work with a horse.

Creative agility...

Creative agility…

To me, the importance of the nature and the quality of the relationship I establish with a horse outweighs pretty much everything else. Every time I work with one of my horses (regardless of whether it is one of my own with which I have worked for many years, or a client’s horse that is new to me), my mindset is that we are part of each other’s journey.  That might sound a bit limp, but to my mind, the horse and I have different views of our respective worlds; it is not that mine is right and the horse’s is wrong – they are just different. 

I have to learn how to create an environment where we ask each other questions and learn how to actively listen to each other’s point of view. We are constantly testing and refining our ideas through what Professor Hill neatly describes as, “quick pursuit, reflection and adjustment.”


Creative abrasion?

Montana is the name of the young horse in the pictures. She is about two years old now and she is….well… sensitive. When she arrived at our small farm, she didn’t want to be touched particularly and would stand just far enough away what you couldn’t reach out and touch her. She had been well-handled as a foal by her breeder, but she was just sensitive.


Griffin – part horse, part soul food!

Griffin, my favourite and lifelong horse (yes, I have a favourite – and that’s him in the picture above) bonded with Montana to the extent that when I led him out of the paddock and into the round-ring, Montana would follow. It took me about 7 months to get to the stage where she would stand still and let me touch her – and even then, she reached a point where it was too much and she would walk. The initial breakthrough came after asking Griffin to stand still with his backside to the rails and at a right angle to the fence. Montana ran in beside him for reassurance when I stepped away from him. When I approached Montana, Griffin didn’t move as she tried to run away through him to get further away from me. He just stood. Montana, a little tense at first as I got closer, stood long enough that I was able to lay a hand on her before almost immediately taking it away.  It was a great moment.   

Each time, over the next few minutes, I would reach out my hand to rest it on her a little longer and stroke a little more. Finally, I was able to run both my hands all over her; she had no halter on and was free to walk off, but she stayed and began to relax a little. When I took my hands away, Griffin stepped away from the fence and she followed. Progress and success seemed to have come almost both at once.


My point is what?   When I work with horses, or when I combine horses and leaders, magic happens. I observe and share them actually experiencing ‘learning’ – and I love it. The real-time, visible reconfiguration of ideas takes place (as Professor Hill would say), often with frustration, but interestingly always with patience. That ‘reconfiguration’ almost always involves the people I work with un-learning something they had been doing, or thought they knew, perhaps for many years and perhaps for most of their life to that point even. 

A horse is a formidable teacher and doesn’t have any notion of what human ‘reputation’ or ‘status’ might be.   I am privileged to work with some very successful, – and what society might consider – high-profile people; with boards of directors, as well as individual CEOs and leaders, about whom I am discrete. It is fair to say they are often used to having things their own way and are sceptical when they first arrive to work with me. Then they discover that a horse isn’t impressed by any of the trappings of success. I work with diverse people from high performance coaches to small business owners, to middle managers and team leader. I work with individuals who want to invest in and develop themselves too. Sometimes, they are just stuck because they might not have a clear idea of what ‘success’ looks like for them and they have either forgotten, or have never clearly defined what Simon Sinek calls their, “Why?”

Creative resolution

Creative resolution

A horse cares about how you treat it and how you interact with it. So do people. A partnership with a horse (and a human) involves being patient and inclusive. It involves being willing to combine ideas from opposite ends of the predator-prey spectrum in order to reach what Professor Hill refers to as ‘creative resolution’. The three capabilities she describes as distinctive with innovative organizations (creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution) are certainly paramount in the horse-training round-ring, as well as in the office environment.

I am often asked, “How long does it take to get to the stage where you and the horse are working together?” I only have one answer – “It takes as long as it takes, and it requires collective creativity”.

Collective creativity!

Collective creativity!


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