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Self Leadership

How can we lead others until we know how to lead ourselves?  Many of us have fallen victim to an inexperienced or otherwise challenging manager—someone who is responsible for our wellbeing and our output but seems to have difficulty engaging his/her team. It seems to be true what people say--”You can’t lead others until you know how to lead yourself!”  

What does it take to get good at self-leadership?  First, it typically entails taking time to reflect – preferably in an environment where one can relax and think. In fact, we often have our best insights to problems, challenges and questions when we take a break by ‘leaving the scene’ and changing the environment.  And passing the time with a herd of horses seems to be just what people need to detach, refocus, reflect, recharge and…reframe. 

So what are the fundamentals of self-leadership?  First, we must learn to deeply and thoroughly LISTEN to ourselves and others—not the idle mind chatter that flows through in and out of our  heads constantly or the attention we give to the tension or aches our body is experiencing. Listening is “active”—it’s about what we DO with what we hear.  Do we ignore it? Do we acknowledge and then act upon it?  Do we respond to it with the same consideration we would to someone close to us? 

Self-leadership is first about listening inward with real intention and attention to what you hear, and to actively decide whether or not you choose to act upon it.  Our work with horses is centered upon being totally present to what we’re thinking, feeling and experiencing at any given moment—both psychologically and physically. (After all, because of their size and nobility, they are hard to ignore.)  

Another key aspect is that horses typically communicate with us non-verbally, requiring us to tune in to and act upon what we see, experience and even intuit when we’re with them in a way that sharpens those skills for our communication with others.  Once we get accustomed to tuning in in this very focused, yet more comprehensive manner, we learn to find the best ways to express what we’re ‘hearing’, making it much easier to take action.

How much do you know about your strengths?  HOW do you know what they are?  It’s no surprise to learn that we all do our best work when we’re PLAYING TO OUR STRENGTHS.  But that assumes we have an accurate assessment of what those strengths are.  While we might experience self-satisfaction when applying what we believe is a strength, we can learn a lot about our strengths from feedback.  Sometimes we have hidden strengths, and sometimes we’re blind to our gaps, perhaps even thinking they’re actually our strengths. 

You might say that feedback is merely someone’s perceptions-- and you would be right.  But perceptions count.  All good leaders care about how they are being perceived.  It’s very important information which we can choose to act upon-- or not.  But knowing how we stand out enables us to leverage those strengths—and being aware of our gaps relative to others means that we have a great opportunity to either work to close them, or learn to compensate for them.  A Vice President from a global IT company brought her team to me.  She was engaged in an exercise 1:1 with a horse who eventually became disengaged and then anxious.  The VP was visibly upset and became (even more) demanding. When nothing helped, she suddenly rounded in on herself and put her head in her hands.  She then walked over to her team and said “I am so sorry.  I now see that this is exactly what I do to all of you. When I’m frustrated and not getting the results I want, I become upset and demanding, making you anxious as a result.  Please forgive me…”

It’s not easy to do this work on our own. We all need a little help from time to time.  Some of us will engage the services of a MENTOR/COACH to challenge us, and in doing so, they support us in our process.  If they’re good, they reflect back to us how we may be perceived by others in ways we might never have known on our own.  In horse-assisted leadership development, the horses often informally assume the role of mentor in that they quietly but clearly provide feedback to us about what’s working and what’s not in a way that just cannot be ignored.   

For example, we’ve all experienced someone we believe behaves with arrogance. Maybe s/he is a brilliant colleague who doesn’t seem to value others’ knowledge. Or perhaps there’s a manager who thinks s/he has all the answers. It’s likely that we too have elements of arrogance within us.  Well, you can be sure your equine “mentor” will set the record straight.  Self-leadership is about becoming aware of all of our limiting thoughts, feelings, stories, beliefs and actions—and addressing them as they become known to us.  That’s where the horses do their best work.  

But it’s not all about “fixing” our gaps.  It’s also recognizing what we need to succeed. I wonder how many of us ever gave it much thought...  Our preferences for HOW we work are likely hard-wired to some degree so it’s worth learning more about those preferences so we can honor them.  In addition, it’s important to understand how we learn best.  Are we visual learners? Auditory? Do we learn better as part of a team?  Alone?  Do we prefer specific directives which we can then follow to the letter? Or do we like to find our own path to the goals that have been established for us? Do we enjoy playing an advisory role or do we thrive most when we’re the decision-maker?  All these choices, and more, are part of how we like to learn.  And they matter—a lot.

In our team exercises with the horses, participants experiment with wearing different hats and assuming different roles, from leader to follower to supporter to bystander,  often understanding more deeply where they feel most comfortable and in what roles/situations they thrive.  What makes these exercises so powerful is that there is no judgement because, after all, they’re not in the office—they’re in a field with horses!  But make no mistake about it, the insights they experience find their way deep within and take hold…

And then there are relationships for which every leader must take responsibility.  When we’re working closely with ANYONE—manager, employees, colleagues, clients, service providers—the more we know about who and how they are, the better able we will be to create the most harmonious and successful relationships.  This of course, means we must accept them for who they are—complete with their strengths, their foibles, their work approach—their values.  After all, they have as much right to be who they are as we do to be who WE are.  Learning as much as we can about others enables us to leverage their strengths, values, ways of working, and more to our mutual advantage. 

Self-leadership is no secret.

Self-leadership is a very private matter that becomes public when you step into the role of leading others.  Few people are able to be as consistent, direct, patient and accurate as our equine facilitators in giving feedback.  They live and breathe mindfulness.  They form no judgements.  They don’t talk about you with anyone. They model what it means to just be yourself, and they keep us grounded in the moment as we explore the edges of who we are and how we want to be.  It takes courage to want to know, it’s true—but once you know, you’ve already traveled a good distance down the path.


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