I’ve been a leader since 1974, when I was four, and my first brother was born. More responsibility came two years later when my second brother was born. Ten years after that, my third brother was born and the responsibility seem to increase further. As the first-born, I was always old enough to know better, and never old enough to know what was good for me.
Perhaps the early introduction to responsibility helped me gravitate toward assuming more of it as I got older; I was a prefect at school, captain of rugby teams through successive ages and levels, then finally an Army Officer. In the early days, I wasn’t a very good leader at all. My brothers would probably describe me as ‘a bit of a bully’ with them when they were younger. I clumsily stumbled through what “being in charge” meant and hope I didn’t do any lasting harm to them.
I found my feet in the Army and ended up enjoying a rich, varied 20 year + career. It was an odd mix of an environment where individuality was encouraged, but boundaries and tradition had to be respected. A military officer is expected to be well-disciplined, deferential to superiors, and a defender of the status quo – and I’m not any of those things. I’ve always pushed boundaries and have never liked tradition for the sake of it, so there was tension at times. I’m a heretic, who challenges – at almost every stage. Not to be obtuse, but because I want to improve things, to excel, to find better ways of doing things. To make a difference, but it isn’t always popular as an approach.
One of my heroes is US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. He’s a hero to me not because of the ‘OODA Loop’ attributed to him, but because of his way of thinking and his willingness to challenge the status quo. He didn’t quite fit the institution and he polarised many senior to him. At a junior stage of my military career, I read about Boyd imparting advice to those weighing up whether to work with him on something important at the risk of being tainted by association. I wrote what he would say in a notebook that I still carry with me and jot things in from time to time. He would say…”one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He would raise his hand and point. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd would raise his other hand and point in another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
The Army allowed me to learn my craft as a leader, to make mistakes and to learn how to earn the respect of those I had the honour to serve. Over the years I learned the importance of a maxim first imparted to me as a cadet at RMA Sandhurst: in all things, be yourself. If you try to be anything different, then under pressure it will tell. Your soldiers will soon know, and you will be lost to them. My path through the Army over the years is best described as unorthodox; it was always driven by wanting to do something, not by wanting recognition, promotion or good assignments. I’ve never considered myself as a leader who was particularly special. I’ve just always wanted to knuckle down, look after my soldiers when I was commanding them, and do my job as well as I possibly could. I’m fortunate to have had some good assignments too.
As a kid, my father – also once an Army Officer – drilled into us all the idea that the leader always eats last. I would wait while my brothers put food on their plate, waiting for my fathers nod to fill mine. He would eat last. I arrived in the army with that sense already engrained from childhood and it felt easy, natural. Years later, I watched a talk by Simon Sinek. It caught my attention because of the title, “Why Leaders Eat Last“. I liked his approach, and so I watched another talk – “Start with, Why?” and I decided to apply ‘the golden circle’ to me – The Naked Horseman.
Why, ‘The Naked Horseman’? Why, get out of bed and do what it is that I do….?
The Naked Horseman! It sounds odd at first, right? And yet, Jamie Oliver can strip down recipes and present the bare essentials of cooking as ‘The Naked Chef’ and no-one gives it a second thought. Well, what I do is strip down and present the bare essentials of leadership.
I believe the foundation of leadership is the nature and quality of the relationships with those being led. I love to spend time on horses, writing and leadership. It was when friends encouraged me to find a way of combining all three things that ‘The Naked Horseman’ emerged.
It is hugely rewarding to work with people who value the ability to think differently about things, to be constructively challenged and importantly who don’t just want ideas, but action too. Horses are formidable teachers and help us focus on the quality of the interaction, the relationships, the partnerships; these same things form the bonds we have with the people as leaders.
I provide clients with an environment which is safe for them to experience being challenged; to have their patience tested and to learn. Together, my horses help me illustrate certain points about the topics of relationships, leadership, communication and behaviour.
I’m not perfect and I don’t know all the answers, but I try to use over 21 years of relationship, leadership, communication and behavioural professionalism, combined with nearly 17 years of horse-professionalism to draw out the experience and knowledge of my clients. I want people to arrive with an open mind, willing to learn and change. I want those same people to then leave me with a sense of achievement and with lots to think about. I want leaders to be better and those being led to be on the receiving end of that.