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!!
‘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).