Leadership and wielding power

Its been a couple of months since I last posted anything. Apparently though, if my blog had been a San Fransisco cable car over the course of the past year then it would have taken 48 trips to carry the number of people who viewed it. The views came from 79 countries over the past 12 months too, and most commented on was my article on Leaders, Power and Openness. My first post of the new year took a while to put together – hope you enjoy it.




“….and if horses don’t have confidence in the person and the surroundings, it’s pretty hard for them to get confidence within themselves – about how to cope with those other two things.” ~ The late Tom Dorrance


The late Tom Dorrance was born in 1910 and his life was filled with ranch work, farming and especially horses. He’s influenced the thinking of an extraordinary number of people over the years (including me), and he continues to influence long after his death in 2003. The combination of the circumstances associated with the photograph above, as well as a recent event involving a client who was extremely nervous about a recent meeting with the Chief Executive of their organisation has been tumbling around clumsily in my head for a while.


As the CE – or any other leader for that matter – do you have any idea of how you impact upon others? Do you have any sense at all of how your presence affects others? Do you even care?


During my military career, I’ve met a number of people who didn’t. They even seemed to enjoy the ‘bragging rights’ they were under the impression it gave them the right to express. Somehow, by being the ‘alpha male’ stereotype, they operated under the delusion that they were an awesome leader. I’ve also met people who didn’t possess charisma or good communication skills; they would employ micro-management and empty discourse instead. They would slavishly adhere to nonsense rules and policy, creating environments where people dreaded making mistakes for fear of what would happen after they did. I’ve met people who enjoy puffing their feathers and showing off their plumage. I’ve met those who hide behind the authority vested in their rank or position. In each case, I recall being staggered, but mostly disappointed, that the organisation rewarded such behaviour or example. The military isn’t perfect – it has people in it after all. Fortunately, I’ve been privileged to serve with some not just good, but outstanding leaders. The types you would walk over hot coals for; the types who put you in harm’s way, but not wantonly – and you go there willingly for them. I’ve met leaders where I’ve looked at them in awe of how they have done something, or interacted with others, and wondered how I could learn to incorporate even a fraction of incredible excellence into the way I lead. The very best ones I met weren’t interested in acquiring followers; they were devoted to creating and developing more leaders – who would be better than them.


...you allow a horse to make mistakes. The horse will learn from mistakes no different than the human. But you can't get him to where he dreads making mistakes for fear of what's going to happen after he does." ~ Buck Brannaman

…you allow a horse to make mistakes. The horse will learn from mistakes no different from the human. Sometimes, you still have to be a parent, but be firm and fair. You can’t get him to where he dreads making mistakes for fear of what’s going to happen after he does.” ~ Buck Brannaman


My client and I have worked together for less than a handful of years now. The comment that has caused me to allow the thoughts to rumble around in my head came up during one of our regular discussions and it leapt out at me at the time.


Client: “I’m really nervous about meeting with the CE. Hope she is in an OK mood.”

Me: “You’ll be fine. She sits down to poop just like you do.”

Client: *smiles apprehensively and nods.


The conversation went on to wrangle with this a little more, but I was really struck by my Client’s initial comment. On reflection, I realised there were two parts to it; one was an internal issue and the other an external one. More interesting, the two parts work in the case of both parties (i.e. my Client, and their CE). I’ve often said that behaviour is the outward manifestation of what’s going on; it’s a symptom. The people working for and with a leader are on the receiving end of the behaviour – and the leader makes a choice about how to express their behaviour. The choice is either deliberate, sub-conscious, or un-conscious; but a choice is made nonetheless.  Being conscious and mindful is hard work; the brain seeks energetically efficient ways to do things and so often, we make a choice that is the one involving least effort. Unfortunately, under pressure those choices are self-indulgent ways of articulating something or expressing ourselves and outwardly, what we project is perhaps not what we would mean to if we put in a little more thought and effort.


"The horse is a great equalizer. He doesn't care how good looking you are, or how rich you are, or how powerful you are. He takes you for how you make him feel." ~ Buck Brannaman

“The horse is a great equalizer. He doesn’t care how good-looking you are, or how rich you are, or how powerful you are. He takes you for how you make him feel.” ~ Buck Brannaman


Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of high-profile figures, over lengthy time periods. Over a handful of them have earned international success in high performance areas. Who they are isn’t important – I’m not someone who seeks or wants accolade or testimonial from such figures so that other people think I’m somehow awesome. You shouldn’t be concerned about who they are either – I’ve yet to have anyone work with me because they want to boast about working with “the guy” who worked with this or that person. People work with me because I’m effective and I’m not interested in a one-shot encounter. My business model is counter-intuitive in some ways; rather like “Rule One of Fight Club – you don’t talk about Fight Club”. Ironic then that I blog, I suppose. However, I blog mostly for me; I don’t want to force what I do on anybody – that’s not the way I work with horses and so it just makes sense to me that I continue that approach with business. With all the people I’ve had the honour of working with, from all walks of life, what strikes me most is how little the horse cares about reputation. The horse just isn’t impressed.


What the horse does care about – and it’s why they are such good teachers – is how you make them feel. Humans are no different.  As a leader, do you really want people to be nervous before they come to meet you? There are times when yes, of course you do, but I’m talking about on everything but those rare occasions. As a leader, how do you ever know you are wrong if you have created an environment where people are too nervous to speak the truth to you? Do you as a leader value the nature and quality of the relationships you have with people? How as a leader do you deal with ‘difficult’, or challenging people to lead? Are you intimidated by it, and so resort to using intimidation to give yourself a sense of control?


There is a Yugoslav expression that, roughly translated, means, “if you want to know a person, place them in charge.” Other cultures have something similar. Everything I’ve spoken about here relates to how you as a leader wield power, and the effects of how you wield power. It also relates to what ‘control’ for you might look and feel like.  My experiences and my working with horses have enabled me to think differently about what ‘control’ actually is; and mostly, it’s a false sense. The first photograph above was a moment where ‘Benny’ – a handful of a young horse – made a decision that he would ‘join up’ with me. It was his decision, but it was crucial for us being able to work together; he had to want to be there with me. As with all the horses I work with, I can’t make them do anything – they have a say in it. Power can be an intoxicating thing and I know this – just like I know the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening: you ride a spirited horse with a light touch and on a loose rein. You don’t try to control it; you develop a relationship with it. You listen to it, you go with it and you ask it – you don’t tell it.


In 2016, don’t be the leader around whom people are nervous. I wish you all a positive and rewarding year ahead.




Ride with a light touch and a loose rein!




Leadership training providers need to lift their game – and so do leaders!


“…what you see with your eyes is not necessarily real. My enemy is, among other things, the me inside me.” ~ Haruki Murakami

I originally wrote this blog as an article for Sonia McDonald, director of the Queensland-based LeadershipHQ. It was published in the July 2015 Edition of LHQ Magazine, (page five). Since then, I’ve added a few more thoughts….

Provision of leadership training: big. Demand for leadership training and development: huge. Is this similar to commercial provision of fast, junk food and our appetite for it? Are we corporately obese from consumption of mass-produced, easily available, well advertised and marketed, ‘trendy’, but ultimately unhealthy leadership food that lacks balance and real nutritional value?

When you last spent money developing leaders in your organisation, how did you measure return on investment? Did you just need rid of un-allocated training budget at financial year-end? Did the provider of the ‘training’ or ‘development’ actually pay attention and understand your organisation’s problem, or deliver a package tweaked to make it ‘fit’? Are you sure you understood the problem you were trying to fix?

Leadership research: similarly vast. The golden chalice – to be the next “Kotter”, “Drucker”, or “Schein”. I’m not being dismissive; these people have at some point, all been ground breaking and influenced two decades or so of organisational culture and leadership. Nonetheless, exercise caution, and think! Drucker’s focus on effectiveness (from 1967) holds true – paraphrased: if you can’t articulate how the shiny thing contributes, then it’s just a shiny thing…enjoy looking at it, and move on.

How do you decide the best way to invest in not only your own development, but also that of leaders upon whom you rely? How do you ensure money spent on a four-day residential workshop at a five-star resort is worth it? For a start, you have to lift your game. Invest most, when you think you need it least; train hard, fight easy!


Not everyone is a leader. The David Brent parody (played by Ricky Gervais in ‘The Office’) springs to mind as the least damaging example. At worst an individual who isn’t a leader, but who occupies the role will get people un-necessarily killed, or take a good team and destroy it. The best people will leave, and the remainder turn into commuter-zombies.

I contemplate the start point for a leader as being able to provide people with reassurance, associated with your presence. For example, I create an environment where clients feel safe making themselves vulnerable, reinforced by three things: neither seeking, nor using testimonials; the prelude to any work of a non-disclosure agreement; and my manner and demeanour.

Reassurance can be visceral; a matter of survival, like in a firefight. It might be intellectual and psychological associated with your livelihood, maybe, when the Damoclesian threat of ‘restructure’ dangles over your department. When it doesn’t feel, sound, or look right – in uncertainty, and when you think it might go wrong – a leader’s the person you turn to, or think of, listen to, or look at with belief that they’ll make the right decisions to keep you (and those around you) safe.

Leadership’s foundation is the nature and quality of relationships. My horse-training and equine-facilitated learning programmes are based on the same principle. During and beyond my military career this remains fundamental. Statement of the obvious? Then why don’t we see it more widely? Why do people struggle with it?


Seductive leadership and development training is cleverly constructed and marketed – it’s multi-million dollar business. Testimonials from well-known figures and CEOs of ‘successful’ companies, offer gravitas. If we see a high-profile figure quoted, or the coach of a successful national sports team saying, “this was the best day I’ve ever spent, and I learned so much about myself!” – it has to be good, because I want some of that gilt to rub off. I want bragging rights to declare, “yeah, we took the executive team down to the lakeside resort where the World Cup team had a retreat before the semi-final”.

Really? That’s still the best you’ve got…?

When it goes wrong, the consequences can be dire; take for example, the recent experience of the England Rugby Team.  The UKs Telegraph newspaper reports how eight members of staff, under the team’s head of athletic performance, took part in what is described as an activity that, “sounds like something from a corporate training manual“. The UKs Daily Mail is a little more brutal, with a headline, “Only Fools and Horses” . The Mirror newspaper expostulated that, “some of the coaching staff led horses round a field in a bizarre pre-tournament team-building exercise“. I don’t doubt that the company providing the training is a professional organisation and did a good job; the point here is that media spin and the appetite for blood  following the England RWC2015 performance has not only ridiculed the activity undertaken by the English Rugby team, but also means the company providing the training for them is probably coy about advertising that they provided the training. Imagine if the England rugby team fortune had gone the other way!

What does this mean for you?

It means you have to try harder. Is adoption of re-contextualised ‘lean-six’ fault finding tools from a production line process the right answer, because it’s popular and fashionable? Roll the clock forward two years; tell me what it’ll look like when you (or one of your senior executives) are leading the people on whom your company relies to win? What behaviours would you expect to see? What do you do if you don’t see those behaviours? More importantly, why aren’t you seeing those behaviours – I mean, you sent people on a workshop with a great set of testimonials!

Did your expensive leadership development forum conduct personality type profiling? Was that what attracted you? Some of these activities are superb, and I know a few companies doing this really well. There is benefit in understanding what makes you tick as an individual or team, but beware! ‘Off-the-shelf’ profiling that repackages the findings and gives ‘insightful debriefs in a one-on-one exchange’ runs the risk of giving the recipient justification and excuses for poor, or bad behaviours.

Encouraging individuals to, ‘empower their subordinate staff to make decisions, and ‘take a greater level of ownership’ is a double-edged sword. I’ve intervened more than once where this manifests as detachment and disengagement from staff and the outcomes of the organisation. One particular experience stands out: when success (through application, by a person in a leadership position, of ‘forum-enlightened empowerment’) didn’t follow, ‘empowered’ staff began to question the logic or direction given. Their leader then saw people as incompetent or insubordinate – because $30K of development training meant they had to be right. It’s uncharitable to lay blame at the conference suite door of the leadership development forum; a company with a formidable reputation ran it. There were also problems with interpretation, assimilation, and subsequent application of the knowledge garnered by the attending leader – but it illustrates the value in thinking carefully about what you’re trying to achieve by investing in training and development. How will you measure success? Can you afford training and development that addresses symptoms, rather than causes, and that might even compound your problems?


What’re you going to do to make things better, and tackle the enemy inside you?

Leaders and reward in noticing the little things.



A couple of weeks ago, whilst making a cup of tea in one of those functional, but deeply impractical kitchens you find on any given floor of uniform, open-plan office spaces, I met John.


John is a cleaner. In his late sixties, he inhabits a world invisible to corporate New Zealand; he passes unseen between bins, elevators and lavatories. He waits patiently whilst the bureaucrats and executives reach in front of him for sugar to sweeten their fourth cup of bitter instant coffee, or hurry into a lavatory cubicle where they’ll leave lean-six sigma infused skid-marks in the toilet for him to remove – in spite of the little white brush beside the porcelain throne. The middle-management dump is a pressing matter when time is money, and you’re a rising star between meetings of little value. Every second counts, and you count every second that conveys your importance.


I’ve watched this theatre play out for a few months now and during one matinée performance, John was trying to wipe the kitchen work-surface clean. I wanted to grab a tea bag as one of the preludes to me letting another warm brew of black tea go cold; it was to be my third so far that day. With his slight build and below average height, John cuts an unimposing figure; his hair is gray and neatly brushed, but he misses patches of whisker on his face when he shaves. His nose has a small patch of dry skin on the bridge and his skin is pale white, almost translucent, save for the clearly visible capillaries that network on his cheeks. The wiry frame of his body can’t hide the bony shoulder blades which protrude through his oversized, logo-marked, cheap workforce t-shirt and his formless polyester trousers hang off him like a sack. At odds with his appearance is the methodological manner with which John works, unless you notice his eyes; he pays attention to the smallest details of cleaning, ticking off items on his roster card in his head as he goes. His eyes are dark brown and hold a glint of mischief when he grins. Cleaning is routine for him, but bin-bag changing is done with meticulous application while no-one notices.




My waiting seemed to prompt John to speak to me. “You’re new here”, he said. I wasn’t sure whether it was a question or not, as he stepped back from the sink and indicated with a rubber-gloved hand and a wet cloth that I should get my tea-bag, because he would wait. “Thank you”, I said and plonked a white dusty perforated package of equally dusty tea into the bottom of my unwashed mug. “I am new; my name’s Jason.” He nodded, “I’m John” he replied. I could see that from his ID tag – and he was right, his name was John. He tapped a finger tip on the photo of him hanging around his neck it, to reinforce the point.


“Ever been to the South Island?” he asked. “Sure have” I said, I love it there – because it’s mostly empty”. He grinned and there was a pause. “I’m from Gore – way down south”, and he rolled the letter “r” as he spoke the place-name, in keeping with the way people from Gorrrr tend to. There’s a mostly good-natured, cultural ‘in-joke’ that New Zealanders have about people from Gore; it is something of a backwater relative to…well almost anywhere. The one thing I’ve found with people from Gore – they’re resilient and hard-working. I guess they have to be; winters are tough down therrrr and most people leave.


John came to Wellington in 1972. He’s the eldest son of a farmer, and the tradition dictates that the farm always passes to the eldest son. However, John explained that when he was a youngster, the doctor told his father that a job on the land wasn’t a good idea. “It’s not ‘cause I’m small, it’s my skin.” He rubbed his un-gloved hand on the forearm of the gloved one, the skinny fingers wrinkling the tissue-paper flesh. “I’ve got pale thin skin, and the doctor was afraid I’d burn in the sun, and so that was that.” It was an interesting way to hear the loss of an inheritance described thus, and what might have been a very different way of life.



So when John and his wife came to Wellington, he got a job working for the Post Office. He did everything from sorting mail, to deliveries, to cleaning. Eventually an opportunity arose for him to return to the South Island, and he eagerly took a job with the Post Office in Blenheim. “I was a rugby player,” he told me “but I was small, so I had to use my brain and learn the rules.” John said he couldn’t understand why the game has become all about massive blokes crashing into each other; to him it is a game of technical skill and finesse. I suggested that perhaps it’s because that’s what looks good on television.  He nodded, just once. “A tiny bugger like me has to learn to jink, and know the rules. You have to tackle right around the ankles when you’re my size – and they go down like falling trees.” He tapped the side of his nose with an index finger, nodded once more – just once – and grinned again. He was describing his actual experience of what most youngsters see in textbooks, but rarely see eventuate these days. Eventually, when John decided he was too small to play against big guys any more, he became a referee. “Nothing fancy, just club games and the odd provincial game; I loved it.” His brown eyes flicked onto me and then off again just as fast.


He and his wife made a smart decision to rent out their house in Wellington whilst they worked in Blenheim. A couple of years passed and they returned to Wellington, to the same house, and still live in it today. It’s located in a suburb that would be unaffordable to a cleaner – and to most middle managers – these days. John and his wife own it outright; mortgage free. His younger brother eventually sold the family beef and sheep farm down near Gore. “Farming wasn’t really his thing” John explained. No judgement; no regret in his tone, just matter-of-fact in the same way he is about his job as a cleaner. Day in, day out John pushes his trolley on the rostered circuit his shift requires. “Bit of a change for me having people in the office; I used to worrrrk the night shift. Mind you, it’s funny – I get about the same amount of conversation, except now people just get in the way when you’re trying to do your job. Doesn’t feel efficient.” He wiped at a clear piece of worktop to remove what must have been microscopic crumbs, or invisible sugar granules to the untrained eye.


About 15 minutes passed while we chatted and during our conversation, a couple of senior executives came to the kitchen area to make a cup of something. Each time, John would stop talking and take an involuntary step backward. It was as if he anticipated that I would cease speaking with him, and engage with them instead. I didn’t – and the second and third time it happened, John grew bolder at staying put, and continuing to talk with me. Now I grinned at him, and I think we both too unspoken enjoyment in the puzzled look on executive faces when they were ignored by us both – role reversal for a moment or two perhaps?




I talk a lot about paying attention to behaviour, because it tells us vital pieces of information. Noticing the little things – especially as a leader – requires effort, understanding what the little things mean and finding their context, even more so. Good interaction with a horse necessitates it, and I’ll venture that good interaction with people absolutely necessitates it too. Start with something simple – like say, “hello” to your office cleaner and learn something about them; who knows, it might be the most rewarding 15 minutes of your day.





Leadership and Gender Equality


We need each other…

”Men themselves have wondered what they see in me. They try so much, but they can’t touch my inner mystery. When I try to show them, they say they still can’t see.”

~ Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” -from her 1978 poetry volume, ‘And Still I Rise’

The quote above, from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman”, struck a chord.  At times, a future where gender equality is something more that two words in an idealistic and etherial construct seems distant; but then I realise humanity surpasses us and things that once seemed impossible can change.  Think back to February 1990, when South African President FW De Klerk ordered the release of Nelson Mandela from Victo Verster Prison.   The practicalities of how that event would manifest created tension and disagreement between the two men – the first of many as they negotiated the tricky path being walked toward what was in essence, the transfer of power. The brutal reality of the situation was that both remarkable men needed the other if apartheid was to end.


I’m contributing to an organisation’s strategic programme to increase its representation, distribution and participation of women. The organisation’s history is traditional, hierarchical and culturally masculine. Its organisational narrative articulates aspirational pursuit of ‘excellence’, and desire to embrace ‘change’. The organisation’s reality is somewhat different: its proportion of women has stalled at around 15% and inclusion of women isn’t significantly reflected in the organisation. So far, the ‘More Women’ programme has progressed from the conduct of a well conducted ‘pre-mortem’, the identification of key benefits, to a statement of ‘the problem’. The programme has also established three work-streams: the first is consideration of the organisational ‘start point’. Second, consideration of recruiting, retention, progression and safety. Third is consideration of the role of culture in sustaining inclusivity, diversity and opportunity. On the surface, this is promising.


Someone at one of the first meetings about the programme asked what I was bringing to the table. I said, “I don’t think your 30% women stretch goal’s ambitious enough”. Swift glances up from notebooks, and silence in the room held a moment or two. I said, “If you’re going to put a number on it, then make it 45% – and how do you know that the problem you have stated is the right problem?” The person said, “Wow!” I liked her; she saw I’d just presented the opportunity to be more ambitious. These were smart, dedicated people wanting to make their organisation better.  It was like the realisation dawned that I had just presented the opportunity to ride a spirited horse, bareback – and without a bit in its mouth.   I offered ‘Red Teaming’ their aspiration to employ more women.  It’s a practical response to a complex cultural problem. Culture disposes how we think and gives context to behavior. Human group dynamics further exacerbate the problem. Red Teaming (with carefully selected and quintessential heretics) allows decision makers to enhance their knowledge and understanding through consideration of alternative perspectives. It challenges strongly held institutional assumptions (not uncomfortable!), and has to be pragmatic. 45% isn’t a target, or tokenism – it involves developing mindsets that women could actually comprise half the workforce – essentially potential transfer of power.



My 14 yr old cat, ‘Smeagol’ – the quintessential heretic!


If you decide to read and learn a little about feminist theory then I challenge you not to say that, “Yes! There’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it; we must do better”. What consequences for an organization, if it doesn’t include more women? At base level, it’s about survival; a horse exists with one sole purpose driving all its thinking and behaviour – to pass on genetic material. Apply that analogy to the traditional, hierarchical and cultural male hegemony; how does it pass on its ‘genetic material’?   What we think we know about the world is constituted through the ways in which we engage with the world. However, narratives arrest meaning; they tend to control and coerce conformity to an existing order.   The work being undertaken by the organisation I keep referring to has the potential to do something remarkable – in a small country that is remarkable; New Zealand is proud of a heritage that saw it become the first country in the world where women could vote on equal terms with men. Ahead, as the reality to engage and employ more women unfolds, there is uncertainty, ambiguity, vulnerability and strangeness to be embraced.



Thistle (Left) and the result of passing on her genetic material: Her pups ‘Floyd’ (centre) and ‘Gin’ (right)

Professor Sebastian Reiche conducts research on international assignments and forms of global work, knowledge transfer, talent retention, cross-cultural management and global leadership. In a recent article he discusses how in spite of all seeming efforts, recent data suggests that the diversity issue is not improving. With the World Economic Forum calculating a decrease in the gender gap by an average of 4% in the past 9 years, this figure predicts complete gender equality by the year 2095 (when I will be 125 years old!). The distinguished feminist international relations theorist, J.Ann Tickner writes in an article published in 2004 that, “In today’s world of about 190 states, less than 1 percent of presidents or prime ministers are women.” Combine that with the World Economic Forum figures and Reiche poses a cogent question, “are we doing something wrong, or just not enough?


Here’s an analogy that helps me get comfortable with something difficult: a horse refusing to step onto a horse float. It’s kicking up a fuss, offering resistance, fighting against the idea, and doing anything to avoid going onto the float. I’ve dealt with lots of such horses, but haven’t encountered one yet (in over a thousand with which I’ve worked) that hasn’t willingly, and of its own accord, walked onto the float and stood calmly in the end.  That doesn’t mean I mightn’t meet one that defeats me in future (in which case, I’ll need to learn more about why), it just means I’m optimistic that my approach is right and what I’m trying to achieve is reasonable.



Self-loading in the end…


Gender equality and leadership are inextricably linked; dealing with associated issues requires courage and innovation. This isn’t a bandwagon to leap on as a self-promotion exercise. If you pride yourself in thinking differently; if you pride yourself on being innovative and open-minded; if you consider yourself fair and unbiased; if you pride yourself on having the moral courage to do what’s right – then you’re probably a feminist.   What critics try to cloud is the simple reality that Feminist theory seeks to better understand women’s subordination in order to prescribe strategies for ending it. Having taken time to read and learn about feminist theory, then as a man – a Naked Horseman – I do say that, ‘Yes!’ There is a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better. This view was reinforced by a link to Ben Acheson’s video that was sent to me on Facebook – and I subsequently posted it to The Naked Horseman’s page.  It was interesting to see that a picture of my goat head-butting one of my calves attracted more likes and achieved a greater reach.  If ever I needed an indicator that what lies ahead is difficult, then that was it!


I’ll try to link the close of this article back to my opening paragraph. If we want ‘diverse’ organisations (because frankly that’s how we achieve the best type of resilience and ensure we survive – through passing on our organisational ‘genetic material’) then there’ll be tension, and disagreement and resistance. I don’t for one minute believe I know the answer; however, the brutal reality is – phenomenal men and phenomenal women need each other if gender inequality is to end.



Leaders and Innovation

IMG_5988 - Version 2

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!

Leaders and Truthfulness


I wrote a little while ago on the topic of leaders, power and openness; I now want to look at another area – that of leaders and truthfulness.

Many leaders are forced to prioritize (and you might either be one, or relate to one who has to do this).  However, in the face of repeated exposure to overwhelming demands, which requirements will actually be done to standard and which will only be reported as done to standard creates…well, tension. Ethics begin to fade and the risk of leaders growing numb to institutional deception rises  over time.  What follows is organisational leadership that rationalizes the tension created and then there is rationalization of the conflict between spouting heroic sounding professional values while slogging through the daily mire of dishonesty and deceit. The end result is a corrosion of culture. Few leaders acknowledge it and even fewer have the appetite to either discuss or work to correct.  If you listen carefully, you can hear the discomfort as one or two readers awkwardly ease from butt-cheek to butt-cheek.
My thoughts were stimulated (and I won’t pretend this article isn’t heavily ‘intellectually beach-combed’)  to write on this topic after a great friend (and huge influence on my own thinking…which I am happy for other’s to intellectually beach-comb) sent me a study eye-catchingly and brutally titled, “Lying to ourselves: dishonesty in the Army profession”.  You can download it free, if you follow the link.
The study’s foreward holds your nose and slips in a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down by stating that, “one of the hallmarks of a true profession as its ability to assess and regulate itself, especially with respect to adherence to its foundational ethos. The foreword further states, “such self-examination is difficult and often causes discomfort…”  As an observation, I would offer that such self examination is difficult and causes discomfort if the thing being examined is an ethical fade and representative of a ‘straying’ from, rather than an adherence to, a foundational ethos.  In other words, whether it is difficult and uncomfortable or not is in the hands of the leaders!
It made me think about one of the recommendations the study made: What actually would happen, and what would it say about the culture of an organisation if leaders examined the moral implications of a decision first instead of rationalizing them away after the fact?  I am going to think on that some more and make it the subject of a future blog.  In the meantime, by putting considerations of the integrity of the organisation back into the decision-making process, the study suggests that leaders dismantle the façade of mutually agreed, institutionally sanctioned deception. The process is helped by leaders who are genuine in their encouragement of brutal honesty in reporting from subordinates.  Note too: there are lots of people in leadership positions who say they are comfortable with brutal honesty….but the reality is a little different.  Another important aide to the dismantling process (so the study says) is self-exam­ination at both the individual and organisational levels; this is most definitely difficult and most certainly will often cause discomfort, but nonetheless, it is necessary too.  Humans are….human, after all – and I am far from perfect!
When leaders ignore dishonesty, attributing it to a minor organizational (is the mixing of my “z” and “s” in words like this driving you nuts yet?) shortcoming; or when leaders write off dishonesty as an inevitable aspect of bureaucracy, it actually inflicts long-term damage on the culture of the organisation.  The calibration of the compass gets out of whack and there is the erosion over time of trust between leaders and those being led.  Time can be short, and pass quickly too and as an aside, I recommend Stephen M.R. Covey’s book “The Speed of Trust” for further bedtime reading.  The foreword in his book is written by his father – “that” Stephen Covey (Stephen R. Covey). Covey Sr. proudly compliments his son’s competence, character and leadership – which features the underpinning elements of not only being trusted, but extending trust to others.
The foundation of trust is eroded (among other things – of which you can read more in Covey’s book) by duplicity and deceit. For example, at a strategic level, the study suggests that this hypocrisy might allow senior leaders to unconcernedly shift a billionty-six dollars to overseas contingency operations funding, to minimize the base budget. At the operational level, the self-deception might make it easy for leaders to dismiss equivocation and false reports as a feature of “bad” departments; they might attribute ‘ticking-the-box’ and fudging results to “weak” leaders or managers. At the coal-face level, duplicity might allow leaders to “feed the machine” bogus information while maintaining a sense of self-identity as someone who does not lie, cheat, or steal.  We are human after all…right?
Horses don’t lie, cheat or steal.  They don’t engage in duplicity, or deceit.  They don’t care who you are; they are not impressed by your reputation. What you see in front of you, and how they react is a direct reflection of you.  It makes them such superb animals for helping to teach the improvement of the quality and the nature of relationships between people – and especially between leaders and those they lead.  It is difficult to accept sometimes, and it can cause discomfort and frustration!  How you behave during your interaction with the horse, what you pay attention to and how open you are to the horse’s input are pivotal.
Horses are superb at helping demonstrate how leadership behaviour and truthfulness of the leader influences the experiences of people who work for them. People, like horses, take heed of such things as whether a leader behaves in a way that allows them to trust that person as a leader.  That trust might be built through the leader demonstrating concern for their well‐being and that of their family, for example.  Perhaps the leader demonstrates the organisation’s (look, no “z”!!) ethos and values in the way they behave, or speak.  People working for a leader might think about whether the leader exhibits clarity of thought and responsibility for the control of their emotions.  Do they look at the leader as someone who is accountable for their actions, and do they in turn hold others to account for theirs? Is the leader someone who embarrasses people in front of others? Do they allocate rewards and punishment fairly?
The US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute study – (and try saying that fast after a beer or two!) relays an interesting metaphor: In ancient Rome, a triumphant general would ride in a celebratory procession through the city after a key battlefield victory. Standing in the chariot behind the general, however, was a slave who whispered into the ear of the general, “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!” meaning, “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!”  The point is, acknowledging organizational and individual falli­bilities is the first step if you want to move toward changing the culture.
What happens in the next steps beyond acknowledgement…well, that’s one of the reasons people ask me to work with them.

Leaders, Power and openness

January Rain


The last day of January 2015 and much-needed rain is finally falling here in the Wairarapa.  We have only had 17.6mm (0.69 of an inch) this year and it is making for a dry summer, grumpy animals and nervous farmers! With the sound of rain on the corrugated iron roof, my first exercise in putting fingers to the keyboard this year continues – kind of – from where I left off in my last blog of 2014. I talked about the concept of power and responsibility – and since then, a few things have bugged me.

The first bit that bugs me is this:

Social exchange is complex and power doesn’t have an absolute level or amount. In constructed societies (like our human ones) explanations and organizations, we – that is, cleverer people than me – have found ways to conceptually ‘sort out’ different bases of power, but in nature these can be much more inter-twined. What I mean is, ‘power’ – in the context of my horse metaphor – doesn’t derive from my position (or that of my horse). It doesn’t stem from a sense of legitimacy of the position I occupy relative to my horse. There is no additional power I derive from controlling rewards. My horse doesn’t see me as a symbol of achievement, like for example business executives might when they see successful superiors. I am not the manifest ‘superego’ of the herd that is created by my horse and I working together, like perhaps a leader of a gang of hooligans might be.

There is also this: Whilst I might be charismatic at times, I am not personally endowed by my horse with infallibility and wisdom – in fact, quite the opposite. Any time I think I know best, my horse has many ways of handling out lessons in humility! Finding part of the answer to my earlier question about what is going on here might be found by thinking about (and trying to understand) what the horse perceives is going on….and in some ways, I think it comes back to Burns and his exploration of the influence of motives and purpose. Many studies seem to confuse three key elements: the holding of power, the willingness to exercise power and the tendency to exercise power.

And then there is a question gnawing: “If all that adds up to a list of what I am not, then as a leader, what am I?”


To try answering the question, I am going to look at what I consider to be a dimension of power – and I suppose as a leader, the associated responsibility. The dimension is that of ‘voice’ – speaking up to a leader with constructive criticism…even when it is uninvited or unwelcome!


To frame the problem:

It helps to realise that this idea of ‘voice’ is a discretionary behaviour. What I mean by that is, ‘voice’ is a piece of behaviour that people you work with can choose to remain silent about. Let me just put more emphasis on this particular point, because it is important – team members can choose to provide information with the intention to improve organizational functioning to the leader, or not; they can choose to remain silent. Sometimes, that might actually involve them withholding crucial information – for any number of reasons. I also want you to think of behaviour as crucial information; it tells us something important as the symptom, the manifestation, of what is really going on – especially if we are leaders!

I have read Sheryl Sandberg espouse the importance of ‘leaning in’. I have observed on numerous occasions ‘brainstorming’ become little more than overbearing individuals imposing their pre-conceived (and often poor) ideas on a group. I also have experience of both being involved in a meeting or working group (and running meetings or working groups) where exceptional input or insight comes from unexpected people around the room. After mulling that over, I decided the strangle tingling sensation in my head must be an indicator of thoughts formulating. The tingling continued as I reflected on the number of times I have listened to leaders and decision-makers saying things like, “I want you to challenge”, or, “I am open to ideas, so put them up and let’s hear them”. Blah, blah, blah, blah!!!


In the majority of cases and as so often happens, the ‘saying it’ and the reality have proven very different.  Curious, given that there is good research to suggest there is benefit to putting the words into action:

Back in 2002, some work by Early & Gibson looked at the way multinational teams work. It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of their findings suggests the improvement of organizational functioning requires as a key element that team members voice their ideas and insights, especially to the team leader, and especially where the team is diverse in membership. Subsequent work by two researchers, Christian Tröster (Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, Germany) and Daan van Knippenberg (Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands) on the effects of leader openness on ‘voice’ in teams with diverse membership. One of their findings shows the importance of leader’s openness as an effective characteristic in encouraging ‘voice’. Tröster and van Knippenberg’s study also suggests that leaders who are open to ideas and suggestions of minority members are more approachable, more likely to receive new ideas and suggestions on how to improve operations, and such leaders are also more likely to find genuinely novel solutions.

There is good news…

Leaders can be trained to ‘listen’ better to their subordinates. Subordinates can also be trained to communicate effectively – both these elements are fundamental, and our clients work with us because we are good at delivering on these fundamentals. Ultimately, it is important that ideas being conveyed are understood; the response to the ideas being conveyed is open, and the desire to benefit from diverse membership is genuine. If your organization functions in an environment that is complex – or complicated; or even chaotic – as many multinational companies with global operations do on a daily basis, then as leaders you cannot afford to assume that people will speak up with ideas for constructive change. In training myself to ‘listen’, I found that not only does a horse help me, but I have learned how I can help other leaders by using horses in both demonstration and as metaphor.

Back to the question then: As a leader, what am I?



It can be uncomfortable for leaders to express this, but it is necessary if you want to excel. It is not about ego, or grand-standing; it is about being honest with yourself.  I am a leader who is open; receptive. I listen – carefully – and I pay attention to the little things. I think of and treat behaviour as crucial information. I want to hear the ‘voice’ of people working with me and for me – especially those who are quiet, or being drowned out by the noise of others. I challenge….a lot…and it hasn’t always been popular, but it has always been done with a desire to make the machine work smarter, harder, faster, better. I am not afraid to use my voice and I try to create an environment where others find the courage to use theirs; I am also far from being perfect! It has not been an easy lesson to learn, but I understand that as a leader I am sometimes wrong; I am willing to accept that I don’t know best. I accept that ultimately I am always responsible for the consequences of decisions, and I don’t let that unavoidable reality create an environment where mistakes can’t be made.

When the emergence of early morning or the onset of evening is characterised by me working with a horse in my training ring, I often consciously think – I am mindful – about the exchange taking place. At such times, ‘power’ doesn’t have an absolute level or amount – and I sure as hell don’t hold it. The horse absolutely has a say in things; the horse has a ‘voice’ and if I want the horse to consider me as a leader who makes it feel safe, approachable and worthy – then I have to earn it. I do that with patience, with a mind-set that is receptive to input and because no two horses are ever the same, with a mentality that constantly seeks novel solutions to whatever issue we are working through together.

The expression, ‘horse-whisperer’ comes from an old philosophy that a good horseman or horsewoman can hear a horse ‘speak’ to them, but a truly great horseman or horsewoman can hear a horse ‘whisper’. With a horse, the provision of information is mostly non-verbal; it is what we might call ‘body language’ and other behaviours. The expression of all these things can be subtle, or explosive and dramatic; it can be with the least amount of effort expended, or with incredible willingness. Regardless, the horse provides us with crucial information, which ultimately serves to improve the way we function together. For that kind of result, it requires that I pay attention; I tune in and concentrate – I listen. From both my military and business experience I know that the consequences if I don’t can be serious.


Let me end by asking you to think about this:


As a leader, what do you do that ensures your people choose not to be silent? Or are you unable to hear anything over the sound of how awesome you think you are?












Power – and responsibility

This will be my last blog for 2014 – my thirteenth since I started blogging in June 2014.  My writing has attracted visitors from a staggering 63 countries since then, and I really appreciate the feedback, comments, advice and encouragement…so thank you! Enjoy this blog and see you all again in 2015 – Happy New Year.


Reflecting on things...

Reflecting on things…




Back in the late 1970s, the work of an American historian, political scientist, presidential biographer and scholar of leadership called James Burns shifted the entire focus of leadership studies.  He reins away from the traits and actions of what might be considered ‘great men’;  instead, Burns places emphasis on the interaction of leaders and those they represent.  This is important; it means that power – conceptually – can be thought of as ‘an exchange’.  In overly simple other words we might say,  “you want something from me and in return, you have the power to produce something I want (or don’t want).

However, it’s never that simple!  There are tricky steps to negotiate with the differentiation of roles.  So, ponder this for a moment:

‘A’ is leading ‘B’; therefore ‘A’ has more power than ‘B’.

Leadership is sometimes thought of as the exercising of power – and yet I would caution against thinking that power is equivalent to influence.  Barnard M. Bass, in a publication entitled as his, ‘Handbook of Leadership’ poses that although leadership and influence are functions of power, it is useful to consider that power might be thought of as, ‘the potential’ to influence.  So what does that mean?


Back to the situation I asked you to ponder a moment ago; If you imagine ‘A’ is me for a moment, and ‘B’ is my horse. Then what?  If power is just the capacity to produce effects on others, it doesn’t really  hold that ‘A’ has more power than ‘B’.


Let’s start with this: I weigh 88.1Kg (about 194lbs for those of you reading from countries without the metric system, but that have been to the moon!).  My horse weighs almost five times as much.  In spite of that, my horse lets me lead him on a really loose rope and halter; he will step respectfully out of my way if I make a ‘click’ noise with the side of my tongue against my teeth; he will step his rear end (where all his power and potential to influence with a kick resides) politely away from me if I fix my eyes on his butt. He let’s me climb on his back and will let me guide him with the lightest pressure from my legs against his side and the reins touching his neck; he will stop from a gallop in a few metres when I shift the position of my hips in the saddle and my legs in the stirrups.  Is it really the case that I have more power than him?

New Zealand's Wild horses - the Kaimanawa, demonstrating what power and grace look like

New Zealand’s Wild horses – the Kaimanawa, demonstrating what power and grace look like


“Power” is not a fixed thing.

Foucoult – the French philosopher – uses his theories to explore the relationships between power knowledge.  He argues that power is mobile and organisations create exclusion in the pursuit of what they want to represent as “the truth”. Organisational bureaucracy is created in such a way that it gives order or regulates a group. By accepting the regulation, the cycle of circumstances creates unquestioning, docile bodies that become victim to the monster they have created!!  Back to the horse again; as a leader of the ‘person-horse herd’, I don’t want a victim –  I need a parter.  I need someone who asks difficult questions, who challenges me to be better – to help me earn the right to lead.

When you realise that rules are not fixed and that there are those who resist, you need to find a way to make that work such that things are better.


Resistance - it can be spectacular!

Resistance – it can be spectacular!


Power is not absolute either.  Any delusion of power I might have with my horse can be diminished the moment my horse decides he has a different notion, or doesn’t like something I have done.  Trust me – those are great moments in which you learn humility!  If instead, I work toward a synergy – a partnership – based on trust, then the team that ‘we’ become increases the total power considerably.  This is described in various theories and applications as the notion of ‘referent power’.  It is based on the willingness of followers to identify with their leaders and importantly, to be accepted by them – the legitimacy of my role as a leader to the horse…which the horse has considerable say in!


At best, what binds the follower to the leader is the desire to identify with the leader.  And that is where the responsibility part comes in….


A two-way interaction

A two-way interaction




Leaders and ‘Bad’ behaviour


Behaviour is the symptom of what is going on underneath.  It tells us something.

However, working out what is actually going on takes effort and it requires you to pay attention.  I was thinking about this as I shaved the other morning.  I was thinking about how the shaving soap disguises the detail of the surface of the skin, but by understanding what lies beneath it, sharp nicks are avoided and you don’t end up with patches of toilet paper all over your face!  With another sweep of the razor, I thought about my experience of situations in my military service where being able to read body language, gauge behaviour and pay attention to little things had literally either saved my life or the life of colleagues…and about two seconds later, I cut myself – a nice reminder that paying attention to the detail is definitely worthwhile under certain circumstances!

The good news is that matching up what you are seeing and hearing with the context and the environment is straightforward. I was thinking particularly about this in relation to bad behaviour in leaders – What it looks like.  How it feels to be on the receiving end of it. Why it manifests.  When it should be addressed and particularly, the consequences of not addressing it.  My thoughts on the topic involved trying to find comparison with the way in which I have learned to read behaviour and deal with unwanted, or ‘bad’ behaviour in horses – bear with me while I talk this through…

*   *   *

Behaviour, like gestures in humans, tends to be expressed in ‘clusters’.  Behaviour should be considered in the context in which it occurs.  There is also either congruence in behaviour or a lack of it – we as humans tend to judge and be judged on our behaviour, not on our intentions.  Consider this for example:

“I didn’t intend to forget your birthday”

“I am sure didn’t.  However, the lack of card, present and not wishing me ‘happy birthday’ until I reminded you are things that make it clear you forgot my birthday!”

Think back to a situation where someone in a leadership role or position of authority did something as simple as shaking your hand Did they then looking away, almost seeming to dismiss you as though you are not important enough to command their full attention? How did they place their hand relative to yours? What was their grip on your hand like?  It is a silly kind of power-play ritual really, but think about how you react to the way someone shakes your hand.

Authentic praise - but only when the horse is being respectful by paying attention to me, not for looking away....

Authentic praise – but only when the horse is being respectful by paying attention to me, not for looking away….

Understanding what bad behaviours in leaders look and feel like is made better by being open to understanding the context in which they are expressed.  It requires paying attention to why they are behaving badly – that means considering what is behind the exhibition of bad behaviour, in spite of the reaction we might have to being on the receiving end of it.  There is no argument from me that this can be hard to do.  Our expectations of leaders and the way they are put in leadership positions sometimes means that there are leaders who are uncomfortable in their role or ill-equipped to fulfil the role.  Under pressure, they behave defensively;  they hide behind their position and the authority or power it affords them, which they then exercise and wield badly.  It might be that they demean people as a means of making up for their own inadequacies or to displace the sense of discomfort and internal turmoil they are experiencing.  Perhaps they are insecure – or even deluded – in both themselves and of their own performance and they respond aggressively to anything which they perceive might threaten their position and the image they are trying to portray upwards.  You  might have experienced things like the threat (either spoken or implied) of receiving a poor annual performance report as a means of making team members ‘tow the line’.

For anyone who has experienced it – or who might be experiencing it currently – being on the receiving end of a leader’s bad behaviour is not only deeply unpleasant, it is toxic for the organisation and runs completely contrary to the pursuit of high performance and excellence.  In the end, it unavoidably amounts to bullying – the abuse of relative power and it is entirely unacceptable.  The good news is that you don’t have to accept bad behaviour in leaders and you can do something about that does not involve the two-letter acronym, ‘HR’.  By not doing something about bad behaviour, think of it in terms of continuing to give them permission to behave badly, or to escalate their bad behaviour in future toward someone else who is perhaps less willing or able to do something – then what?  What are the consequences of not addressing bad behaviour in leaders?

*   *   *

I am biased, I will admit, but horses I think are a superb animal to learn about behaviour from.  Key to the philosophy of ‘horse whispering‘ is that you pay attention to behaviour and body language.  In crude terms for the purpose of illustration, the horse is a flight animal constantly making decisions about “stay” or “run“.  For the horse, life is about surviving, breeding and eating – everything is assessed in terms of whether it is in danger of being eaten by a predator or not.  When that is your view of the world, you pay attention to detail and you view things through a different lens.    It is difficult then it seems to describe behaviour by horses as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – really it is just behaviour and the context in which it is displayed is therefore important.  Like the weather, as comedian Billy Connolly once said, is neither good or bad – it’s just weather!  Horse behaviour in the context of human interaction is either ‘wanted’ or ‘unwanted’ and thinking of it like that helps me correct ‘unwanted’ behaviour without a sense of wanting to punish or blaming the horse.

At the forefront of my mind when working with a horse that displays some unwanted behaviour is the consequence of not addressing it.  Sometimes, the unwanted behaviour is subtle – like not looking at me when I rub the horse’s forehead in praise.  Often however, the behaviour can be spectacular and explosive and dangerous; my role then is to be calm and to try to understand not just what I am seeing, but to read why I’m seeing it.  If it is not corrected, a horse weighing nearly 500kg, unleashing varying levels of ‘flight’ behaviour has the potential to seriously injure or kill.  Interestingly, I have had clients who try to justify the unwanted behaviour on the part of their horse by saying things like, “He is not that bad really, it is only when I try to such and such a thing that he reacts like this….”   This kind of reasoning is the same as saying, “He is not that bad really, it is only when he is drunk that he beats me and the kids…”  It doesn’t really matter when the ‘bad’ behaviour comes out – if it is unwanted or unsafe behaviour then it is unacceptable and it needs to be addressed.  ‘Bucking’ in a horse, for example, is not a behaviour that is wanted when we are riding right? I like to teach a horse that bucking is hard work before the rider gets anywhere near being up on its back; it means I am laying good foundations by addressing an issue early and then I don’t have a more serious issue to contend with further down the line!

Flank roping

A young horse learning that ‘bucking’ is hard work…

Humans, by comparison with horses, are contradictory with their behaviour and body language signals.  Allan and Barbara Pease wrote a super book called, ‘The Definitive Book of Body Language‘ in which they describe how humans ‘mask’ their intentions with different behaviours; they mask motivation, drivers and emotion for example.  However, as with horses, I have learned that behaviour and body language are just the outward manifestations of what is going on under the surface.  By spending time studying both human and horse behaviour, I realised that behaviour comes from somewhere and reflects not only emotional condition, but putting aside the nuance in some cultural distinctions, the essence of communication indicators are universal and therefore we can learn how to avert potential issues.

Knowing what is going on doesn’t excuse bad behaviour – but it does mean you don’t have to put up with it.  I am  suggesting that if you learn to understand what is going on by paying attention and then think about why you are seeing the behaviour it means you don’t have to be victim to it.  You also learn to react to it differently and you can more often than not head it off before it becomes spectacular and dangerous!



We do a lot of work with all sorts of clients using horses as a vehicle (forgive the pun!) to illustrate and teach about behaviour – especially non-verbal behaviour.

It works for individuals, teams, team leaders, senior leaders, high performance individuals, teams and coaches and corporate decision makers to mention just a few.

If you are interested in discussing how it might be helpful to you, then please get in touch.

Pursuing the art of ‘how’ to think

Different on purpose...

Different on purpose…


Questioning institutionally bad ideas is often seen as not conforming to a ‘agreed version’ of events.  Therefore, the idea of institutionally trying to shut ‘disruptive thinking’ down, or trying to create the illusion of certainty, I think sets leaders and key decision makers up to fail.  Let me tell you a story to try to illustrate what I mean…

*   *   *

In the photograph above, I was working with a super young horse called Danny.  If you look closely, you will Danny had no bridle and no saddle either.  There is a rope looped around his front left foot, the other end of which I am holding and putting a little pressure through.  The idea is that when the horse feels that pressure, it stands still and lifts the foot off the ground.  I start the technique from being on the ground and progress to what you can see in the photograph – this is done at different gaits too (both walking – slow and fast – and trotting); in each case, the outcome I want is the horse standing still as immediately as possible once it feels pressure on the foot.  Why?


I am teaching the horse to stand still in the event its leg becomes entangled in something.  I have another young horse called ‘Benny’ under training at the moment (see picture below) and this has proved its worth many times for this young fella – he is smart and seems intent on putting his feet into things or tangling himself up ‘just to see what will happen’.  The answer, nothing – he doesn’t panic and he stands still, waiting patiently to be untangled.  The point is, it is a slightly different thing to teach a horse and not many people take the trouble to do it because it takes a bit of effort on one hand I suppose, but mostly I suspect because people don’t tend to think though ways to help their horse not create a worse situation if they get into difficulty.  In essence, my philosophy is one in which I am trying to teach the horse how to think; how to deal with something challenging so that they are not set up to fail, whether it is because a coat flaps wildly against them, a truck ‘whooshes’ past unexpectedly, or they like tangling their feet up in things.



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For organizations (and leaders and decision-makers for that matter), learning how to think is a hugely important part of not setting it or ones-self up to fail.  Especially, if there is a requirement to contend with an adaptive, determined, ‘net-work enabled’ and agile adversary, competitor or market place!  (Hmmmm….could globalisation help create such things???).  Hugely important too is the  way in which we learn or are taught how to think – and it might prove different, even odd, at times!!


In part learning how to think requires that you have a critical spirit – a burning curiosity – and you must be willing to challenge.  However, it is not all about you as an individual.  It is not about just complaining or venting about policies or ‘things’ we dislike in the organization.  Rather, it is a feature of individuals in an organisation – or even the culture and values of an organisation that exude willingness to engage in ruthless, honest, critical discussion.


By facilitating people’s ability to develop a view through which they can assert or say something we can set conditions in which people can learn; most importantly though, they can learn ‘how’ and ‘why’  and ‘when’ to challenge what is said all with unselfish focus on an outcome that makes things better – whether that is more efficient, smarter, faster or whatever.

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One of my favourite contemporary illustrations of the utility of such thinking is “The Bike Design Project”, in which five international design teams are competing to create the ultimate urban utility bike by trying to bring new perspectives to the 100 year-old, history-steeped challenge of bike design[1]. One of the teams placed focus on understanding the experience a bike can deliver, rather than simply seeing the bike as a stand-alone object and this required them to ask good questions in the first instance like, “What motivates a person to cycle?”


By asking good questions, we should aim to strip an idea down to its essence and find inspiration. All too often, we don’t seem to ask good questions in the pursuit of the right balance between our form and function, do we?

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[1] For more information, see: http://oregonmanifest.com/