Horse sense

An (emotionally) intelligent approach to leadership development

What is leadership? The Collins Concise dictionary defines the verb ‘lead’ as ‘to show the way (to an individual or a group) by going with or ahead’ – and ‘to cause to act, feel, think, or behave in a certain way; induce, influence’. In the last century, corporate leadership was largely about ‘command and control’, but the development of a knowledge economy, in which most physical processes can be automated, calls for a different style of leadership – transformational rather than transactional; inspirational rather than instructional.

In his bestseller ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (1995), Daniel Goleman offered proof of the importance of emotional and social factors in business success (explaining why it is that people with IQs of 160 end up working for people with IQs of 100 – people who happen to be more emotionally intelligent). In the book ‘Primal Leadership’ (2002) by Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee, the authors argue that the primal job of leadership is emotional. Great leaders ignite passion and inspire the best in their followers by working through the emotions.

Clearly, leaders need appropriate technical, professional and intellectual ability. In addition, good leaders also display emotionally intelligent behaviours, which have been summarised as:

  • Self-awareness – knowing your own emotions; recognising feelings as they happen.
  • Self-management – managing your emotions; handling feelings in an appropriate way.
  • Social-awareness – recognising emotions in others; empathy, organisational awareness.
  • Relationship management – managing emotions in others; influence.

Emotional intelligence is an area where the ‘knowing-doing’ gap can be painfully evident. We know the theory, and are aware of how we should behave – but can be hi-jacked in the moment by inappropriate emotional responses, which we may later come to regret.

How can emotionally intelligent leadership be learned? What experiences are available to those who want to develop their ‘EQ’ in order to lead more effectively? How can we hold up a mirror to the emotional energy which is constantly being expressed through our behaviour and body language?

This is an area in which ‘equine-facilitated’ or ‘equine-assisted’ programmes excel. Horses are extremely aware of, and responsive to emotional energy. Horses don’t lie; they don’t separate how they feel from how they act. The expression ‘what you see is what you get’ describes them perfectly. Whatever they feel – scared, confused, submissive, bold, relaxed, confident – they communicate through their actions, and as mirrors of emotional energy, they react to what they see and sense in us.

When people and horses interact, the horses sense – through the subtlest of signals – how the approaching humans are, both emotionally and physically. Our posture (body language) and tone of voice send signals to which the horses respond, either by inviting us into their space, or using cues to communicate their unease. Because horses are truly ‘in the moment’, the instant our behaviour changes (e.g. as a consequence of changing a thought, an image, a belief or an emotion), the horses’ responses also change. Horses are forgiving of mistakes and help us to learn. Responding to their feedback we can become more focused and aware, calmer and more confident, assertive without being threatening.

LeadChange has been running experiential programmes with horses since 2002, working with corporate executives and teams to develop their leadership, communication and team-working abilities.

Read the full article for examples of how this work relates to various aspects of EI and emotionally intelligent leadership (as described by Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee).

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