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. 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!




Think smart: there is always someone cheaper…


I made a choice with the delivery of my services and products to focus on quality – and not to compromise on that.  As a philosophy, this is central to everything.  I do a lot of business based on a discussion to establish what needs to be done, a handshake to seal the deal, and then I set about delivering what I said I would – if anything, I tend to try to under-promise and then aim to over deliver. However, if there is a downside to this approach then it is that engaging me to deliver my services or to buy my products is not cheap.

Regular conversations and strategy discussion with trusted, level-headed and straight-talking friends, mentors – and indeed clients – means that thought and input that has gone into this philosophy and method of conducting business.  One of my friends, with whom I speak regularly on the frustrations we both have to learn to deal with because of the same mindset about this topic sent me the photograph up above and he suggested I write about it as the topic of my next blog….so here it is!

I have spent a long time developing knowledge, enquiring, studying, paying attention and refining my approach.  My experience to date – not all of it relevant – has been hard-earned; my military service taught me many things – not least of which was that you can do more than you think you are ever capable of.  It also taught me that a sense of humour is vitally important (even if it is little ‘dark’ at times), humility is an exceptional quality and being un-relenting in the pursuit of the elusive and mercurial nirvana, ‘excellence’ is both right and proper.  I have come to know that there is no such thing as ‘an expert’ – and to be wary of anyone who claims to be one.

There is an awful lot I didn’t – and couldn’t have – learned in the military too.  Business can be mercenary; the customer is not always right, but the best ones know that and it is why they come to you in the first place.  Not only that, they will pay you to help when they are not right, or they don’t know, or they just can’t do something themselves – and you need to be respectful of that.   It has struck me that people tend to classify products or services (not just mine) as either ‘expensive’ or ‘inexpensive’ and this, together with a sense of what constitutes ‘value’ for them, influences how they judge spending their money on buying products or services.  This is the healthy, and normal way in which relationships are built; this is how trust develops and foundation clients invest their loyalty – in return for which, you give the best you have got….always.

In my line of work, good horses – like good leaders – take time to develop; they require investment and benefit enormously from an environment in which they can learn and are allowed to make mistakes.  The knowledge and skill-sets I have developed are focussed on ensuring that when people pay their hard-earned money for my services, they know it is expensive because it is worth it.  However, it has to be tempered with this:

Rule #1: Provide the absolute best product and/or service you can; Rule #2: Be honourable and authentic in the way you deal with people, and; Rule #3: Don’t be greedy.

At the beginning of this year – and again, after careful consideration and lengthy discussion (you know who you are AC FarmTech Ltd – thank you) – I changed my pricing models for both my consultancy work and my horse training;  I am just going to talk about the horse training here by way of illustration.  When a client contacts me with an enquiry for a one-off session, I explain that I charge a call-out fee (which covers my time in turning up at the agreed location); at my discretion and often in negotiation with the client, this fee may be waived – an example might be under the circumstance of a referral from an existing client.  In addition, I charge a distance fee per Km travelled (usually based on a return journey from my home location to wherever I am meeting the client – again, this is negotiable; for example, I have a client who comes to pick me up as a matter of convenience primarily for them).  When I arrive at the location where the training session is to take place, the meter starts running and there is an hourly fee charged – this is where trust is built; I am not greedy or wasteful of time.  After all, if I want to establish rapport and an enduring and authentic relationship with a client where they can feel comfortable about working with me and their horse and they trust what I can do or bring to the party – then why on earth would you abuse that?

There are times when an enquiry from a potential client might sound something like this:

Me: …”now that I have understood you are concerned about ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’, let me explain the costs involved in engaging my services. There is a call-out fee of this many dollars, I charge this much per kilometer and my hourly rate once I arrive at your location is this much.”

Potential Client:…”oh that’s a lot.  I don’t want to pay that..”

Me:..”Of course; I understand.  You don’t have to engage my services if you don’t want to.”

Potential Client:…”but I have spent $12,000 on this horse and it has these problems and I can’t do anything with it; it doesn’t feel safe to be around and I don’t want to ride it while it is like this….what you are charging is too much.”

Me:..”Really? How much do you think it should cost?”

Potential Client:…”Well, I don’t know, but can’t you come along and have a look and see if there is anything you can do?”

Me:..”I would be delighted; do you want to pay in cash, or are you happy for me to invoice you afterwards?”

Potential Client:…”oh I am not paying for a consult, I just want you to come and give me some advice.”

Me: “And you want me to provide my knowledge, which you are seeking out –  for nothing – to help you with a horse you paid $12,000 for and now can’t do anything with it?  I think perhaps it sounds like I am not able to provide what you are looking for, but I wish you the best of fortune in resolving the challenge you have on your hands.”

There is of course a degree of ‘poetic licence’ in relaying the above conversation (which may or may not resemble and actual and very recent conversation) in order to illustrate a few points.  First point:  you don’t have to engage my services or by a product from me; there is no need for either of us to be impolite and I completely understand that there are both objective and subjective elements involved in spending money on something.  I am not offended if you walk away.  Second point: if you are seeking specialist knowledge and assistance, it has a price tag – for a reason. Imagine entering a Mercedes dealership and complaining that for the money they want for the latest “C” class sedan, you could get three second-hand Ford Mondeos.  Why would you do that if you have entered a Mercedes dealership, knowing they sell quality, high-end, technologically fantastic  motor cars?  Third point: Go back up top and look at the photograph again…I’ll wait…… you are back, the third point is that there is always someone who can provide a service or product at a cheaper price; if for you, it comes down to actual price because that’s your budget and you don’t want to spend the money – that makes perfect sense. I am not offended if you walk away, but make sure you understand why and have thought about the question, “at what cost?“.  Fourth point: because of points one to three, if you try to obtain my specialist knowledge and assistance on what might be done about the problem you have, and then you take that advice to get someone cheaper to do the work – I won’t be offended when I walk away.
I have client – a longstanding one (and the one who comes to pick me up and transport me to the location of her horse) – who expressed this view at one of our last sessions:…“I have spent $8000 on this horse and I will spend what it takes to put right the issues; there is no time pressure or deadline – I just want to get things right. Without doing that, we can’t enjoy her and she is not able to enjoy working with us.  She is already heaps better after just two sessions and most of all – thank you for not making me feel stupid”….
I realised how lucky I am, because actually, all my clients have that kind of view on engaging my services and working with me and their horses.  I didn’t really know what to say at that point, so I tipped my head and began to gather my long lead-rope and then tie it off neatly.  A little embarrassed, I muttered something like, “thank you and you are very welcome”.  
In the end, it really comes down to this: When I received the photo from my mate, it made me think again about our conversations regarding the importance of having an uncompromising focus on quality.  This obsession with settling for the cheapest price, or seeking out specialist knowledge for nothing in order to take that knowledge for someone cheaper to do the work is a thing that we have to stop;  one hell of a tattoo to explain otherwise, but remember – you asked for it.