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?

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, 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…

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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.

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).






The importance of asking, “why?”…


Why what?….Why this blog? Why horses? Why leadership?  Why horses and leadership? Why me?

“Why?”  is an important question to ask yourself – “why are you doing this?”, “why are you here?”, “what makes you turn up on the day’s you feel like you don’t want to?”

The essence for me is that ‘it’ (the horses thing, the leadership thing, the horses and leadership thing) provides me with sense-making – and more importantly, comfort with the times when it doesn’t make sense.  It is around these things  and amongst these things that I have found expression of authentic self.  Without obsessing, I have reflected over the years on what I might actually ‘do’ with my life if I could really choose to spend my time in any way I wanted.  It took a long time to work it out – partly because I just didn’t know.

It was also partly because like many, many other people in the world I have bills to pay, and partly it was because I have been fortunate to spend a large part of my life doing work that I loved.  With all of that, I realised that the things that were always ‘centring’, always ‘grounding’, always ‘restorative’, always humbling and a privilege, and always gave me strength to endure things that were difficult were the things that emerged from either being around horses, or being a leader….or both.

The leadership and development work I provide have became a natural extension of my work with horses and other formative events.  The horse is a great vehicle (forgive the pun) for teaching and provides endless examples for me to work with clients.

The final element for me was this this:

At the end of it all – I ran out of reasons to keep trying to convince myself that this was only something I did in my ‘spare’ time; life is too short and much too fickle.

In solving some problems, there is a neat technique called, ‘the five whys’.  It usually starts with a statement about a problem and involves asking the question, “why?” Whatever the answer to this first question, you then ask, “why?” again.  In response to that answer, ask “why?” and keep asking it until you have asked “why?” on five occasions.  The answer to the final posing of “why?” tends to be the revealing of the real problem, not the one that it first appeared to be.


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