leadership qualities

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!




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.





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




What are ‘junior’ leaders for?



A friend of mine is conducting a review directed from a high-level decision maker following concerns about the way in which some activities are being conducted.  Due to my background, my knowledge, and the way I look at issues my friend approached me to ask if I would provide some input; as her investigations and evaluation progresses, we meet routinely to discuss the issues or concerns this raises as she works toward the provision of a report for the initiating decision-maker.  My friend is someone who thinks deeply about things – and it matters enormously to her that she makes a difference as the result of her involvement in whatever she does.  She has one of the most infectious laughs I have encountered and the kind of obscure, mischievous sense of humour that is not only appealing to be around (because it is not fundamentally unkind), but it also draws you to her and I find myself a little mesmerized at times.


During a recent discussion (via the antique medium of text messages), we wrestled with a particular set of topics and exchanged quick-fire witty bursts; one of these bursts was her pointing out a single grammatical error in my blog about taxi drivers (http://wp.me/p4IMWs-p).  I immediately corrected the error (there was something in the way she pointed it out that made me feel compelled to do so, but I expect there are more!) and whilst I was doing so, she sent me another text that read, “If you could write about the qualities junior leaders need to demonstrate that would help me greatly. But I am not sure if has anything to do with horses.” I know – there are more than one grammatical errors in her text too, however I let it go…so you can too!!

What has it to do with horses?

‘Junior leadership’ – What has it to do with horses?

That discussion took place on Tuesday and I have been mulling it over ever since.  I sat facing north on my winter sun-soaked deck this morning with a breakfast-mug of coffee trying to take the edge off an indulgence of single-malt nightcaps last night;  I listened to the Tui sing, and heard magpies call out to each other. Watching my horses as the sun warmed them through,  beginning to evaporate the covering of frost from the paddock, my fuzzy thoughts began to swirl like the steam rising off my black caffeine life-saver and eventually they started to gel.


If you look closely at the picture above, to the left you will see a young horse I have here under training – he’s called, ‘Benny’.  He is about two and half years old and is lying a respectful distance from ‘Griffin’, the leader of the small grouping, who is lying to the right.  Griffin’s fourteen, rising fifteen in November this year – that mane of his holds a lot of tears!  To his right in the picture, you will see ‘Nevada’ – he is absolutely racked-out flat in the kind of slumber that only comes when you feel safe. Unusually, has his hind legs up over Griffin’s backside which is causing no affront or irritation for the big fella whatsoever; Nevada is 19 months old and offers substantial potential to the older horses for both affront and irritation, but he is beautifully mannered and utterly impossible not to like.  Looking at this scene as the rich caffeine began to displace the whisky in my soul, it got me thinking that junior leadership has in fact everything to do with horses – let me see if I can illustrate what I mean.


I am going to start by asking this: “What are junior leaders for?”


Regardless of the organisation in which they are employed, the appointments for junior leaders are often thought of as a training medium, outside of which, anything else might be considered a bonus.  I don’t think this is either particularly acceptable, or justified as a mindset given that we tend to focus on recruiting ‘educated’ junior leaders who are more likely than not to be university graduates either at under, or post-graduate levels.  It’s a challenging prospect for an organisation to be brutally honest with itself in considering whether the current way in which it attracts, trains, employs and retains junior leaders provides any degree of assurance that it will ultimately have decision-makers who will both think for and have confidence in themselves, rather than relying on ‘staff’ to do it for them.  Whether it is an effect seen from their nature or their ‘up-bringing’ in an organisation, at the other end of the scale some ‘senior’ leaders demonstrate behaviour that suggests they feel the need to have all the answers…all of the time.  Clearly, that is nonsense, but this faulty behaviourial demonstration is achieved by demanding and pursuing a false nirvana using legions of people in the hierarchy of the infrastructure below them; many of these ‘underlings’ are conducting nugatory work with no useful output for the organisation.  It is the creation of a giant and self-licking ice-cream!!  The danger for any organisation recruiting and training new entrants to this type of world is that they learn to seek institutional solutions and are shunned if they seek to change attitudes or ways of doing things.  It becomes ‘the gift that keeps on giving’…a kind of corporate chlamydia!


If you bring young people into the organisation, then it is of course easy to mould them; they can be ‘shaped’ and indoctrinated to form the back-bones of organisations – after all, that’s one of the reasons the military traditionally looked to recruit 16 to 18 year olds.  In a world of ‘instant gratification’, where ‘Facebook feedback’ and ‘Twitter twaddle’ have generated massive amounts of information, IT is seen as the solution – regardless of whether we understand exactly what the problem is that we think we are trying to fix with it.  We seek to attract ‘IT-savvy’ individuals to help us cope as we stumble through executive-speak, management techniques and talk about effects of globalisation.


What all of that misses is the way in which we develop junior leaders who can then exercise power with wisdom and responsibility; who can command with appropriate use of the authority vested in them and in an authoritative manner when the time comes.  Junior leaders developed so that they can be confident enough to make use of sparse information with which to devise a simple and pragmatic plan, make sensible decisions and provide clear, concise direction with some guidance as necessary.  What junior leaders are ‘for’, is this:  they exist to help ensure the organisation’s survival and relevance in the future.  To do so requires not only learning their craft, but sharpening it by constant practice in an environment where they are allowed to make mistakes that come from inexperience and experimentation.


If that’s what junior leaders are for, then:  “What are the qualities junior leaders need to demonstrate?”


Junior leaders need to demonstrate a willingness to learn; to observe, to listen and to practice their craft.  They need to show a willingness to experiment and challenge…and seek change.  Importantly, they need to demonstrate capacity for wielding power, without being corrupted by it and exercising balance.  Junior leaders need to demonstrate courage – both moral and physical kinds; they need to show that they can reach sensible decisions based on little – or often incomplete – information, devise a simple plan under relative uncertainty and then issue clear instruction before taking the step forward to lead.  Junior leaders need to demonstrate the qualities of grace and humility as well as humour; a sense of fun tempered with good judgement and responsibility.


Often we focus too closely on being able to measure competencies associated with such qualities and the problem becomes one of subjective rather than objective assessment.  How do you measure someone’s capacity to provide ‘leadership’ for example?  This can be addressed by understanding the effects or the outcomes we want as the result of junior leaders demonstrating these qualities – they can then be measured against those results.  For example, if the outcome you want is a reduction in attrition, an improvement in morale, an environment free of harassment or bullying, and say an increase in the standard from people completing training, then what would we expect to see of a junior leader placed in a role where they were tasked with doing so?


In return, senior leaders need to demonstrate willingness to let junior leaders demonstrate these things and also to provide concise, clear guidance.  The solicitor and crime write,Michael Gilbert (a Gunnery Officer in WWII) describes what senior leaders are for in his novel, ‘Death in Captivity’:

…”It was exactly eight o’clock.  Colonel Lavery (the Senior British Officer in the Prisoner of War Camp in Italy) said to the Adjutant, “I shall want the Hut Commanders over here.  Tell them not to come over in a bunch.  I think the Quartermaster is in his room.  You might pass the word to him.  Oh, tell RSM Burton I shall want him – but he is not to come before none o’clock.”

    As Colonel Lavery spoke, Goyles (a Forward Observation Officer by trade and an active escaper) realized one thing very clearly.  Any chance they had lay in the fact that the Senior British Officer was a man who had mastered the technique of command.  This did not imply that he was a captain of men or the leader of forlorn hopes – but simply that he was a professional soldier who, by long practice and usage, had acquired the ability – that deceptively easy, much under-rated ability – to formulate a plan and put it into operation….”

This short passage, whilst not intended to be a distraction, I thought illustrates a number of things: courtesy, guidance (no bunching by the hut commanders that might alert the guards), helping the adjutant by suggesting he might find the Quatermaster in his room – simple things, but they take time to develop and refine and the outcome Lavery wants it very clear as the result of his thought into producing a simple plan, which he articulates well.


Now let me ask this: “What has this to with horses?”


In the wild, horses spend time during the day in small groups – often around five horses, but up to maybe eight or ten.  As night closes, the groups all come together in a much larger herd.  In the smaller groups, there is often a leader – usually an older horse, or more likely a mare – whose role it is to guide the activities of the group during the day.  They teach the others, especially the younger horses, how to work together; this is to ensure they can all balance being able to eat, to relax and to be alert to danger.  They learn the etiquette of operating in a herd; the social nuances and importantly how to exercise power.  This activity in the smaller groups ensures that when they come together into the larger herd, they can still function effectively without too much tension or dis-harmony in spite of the occasional fractious outburst perhaps as a young colt strays too closely to another stallion or his harem.  As part of belonging to and benefitting from being part of the group there are rules and principles that have to be learned; failure to abide by them results in being ostracized, or cast-out.  If you are an animal for whom everything in your life is likely to eat you, then you think differently about the world and operating on your own outside the herd does not make for good odds to survive and pass on your genetic material.


When I train horses, I start by working with them in the confines of a round pen – actually, mine is an octagon because it is easier to construct and stronger than a circle.  However, the pen (some 15 metres in diameter) provides me with a controlled space (relative to a wide open paddock or hillside) in which I can set up an environment that is safe.  At the outset, my presence can represent an anxiety for a horse as I push them away from me and initiate a ‘flight’ response from them.  The horse beings to  process the situation it finds itself in, realising that ‘flight’ – that is running away, or around and around the pen – is not taking it any further away from the source of anxiety – me.  It has then to learn to deal differently with this situation if it wants the circumstances to change – and they all do learn how to do this.  Close to me, and eventually within the whole area of the pen, becomes and environment that is safe – as the leader of the two-animal herd, my entire focus is on creating an environment that is safe and in which the horse can learn.  My experience developed in being able to create this environment and in being able to read the behavioural and body-language signals that the horse is showing me have taken time to refine, to develop and to understand – and I am an eternal student!  Young horses – especially those with the character and substance to become future leaders of groups, or the herd – take time to develop; they challenge and I learn more from a horse that proves difficult than I do from one that yields easily.


Going back to the photograph of Griffin, Benny and Nevada:  I have worked with Griffin for a long, long time now and we have come to understand each other pretty well.  He has developed into a superb horse for helping me develop young horses; he leads with balance, he sets boundaries and there are consequences for those youthfully intent on stepping outside them.  He is fair and he makes younger less certain horses feel safe – hence Nevada with legs in the air and in a coma!!  My horse training and my other consultancy work is in part influenced by the application of this philosophy: “Quality, quantity, speed – pick one”.  If you want to produce quality, then it won’t be fast and you can’t do it in high volume (because they are mutually exclusive positions), and it is not cheap.  If you want quantity, then it too can take time depending on production capacity, but it won’t be high quality and is generally cheap.  If you want to produce something with speed, then you can get volume depending on capacity, but regardless – don’t expect quality or depth and do expect consequences for having it made in a reduced timeframe.


I choose to focus on quality.  Good horses – like junior leaders – take time to develop; they require investment and benefit enormously from an environment during that development which is safe.  An environment in which they can learn and are allowed to make mistakes.   Junior leaders must be allowed to show initiative and to use their imagination, unhindered by excessive regulation and stifling rules.  They must also learn how to take responsibility – especially for consequences…and what those might be needs thinking through in some detail.  Good senior leaders are what help create good junior leaders – they provide environments that feel ‘safe’ for their subordinates (even when the stakes might be high) and there is no point is developing any sort of ‘wish stream’ profile of what you want a junior leader to do without it.


Simon Sinek has a cool TED presentation and perspective on this from March 2014 if you want to explore a little more about the idea of good leaders making you feel safe: (https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_why_good_leaders_make_you_feel_safe).