Never work with children or animals

Developing leadership presence

The Department of Transport in the UK was recently criticised by the Taxpayers’ Association for wasting taxpayers’ money on horse whispering courses for managers.

W.C. Fields’ said: ‘never work with children or animals’. So why do government departments and large businesses send senior executives on programmes where they interact with horses? And what explains the widespread popularity of television programmes like Cesar Millan’s ‘The Dog Whisperer’?

Patsy Rodenburg gives us some clues in her book ‘Presence – How to use positive energy for success in every situation’. She tells how she was taken, as a five-year old, to see Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which a dog shares a couple of scenes with a character called Lance. After the show Patsy asked her mother, ‘Why was the dog real and the man not?’

Sporting success is achieved with presence. Every great sporting triumph is one of being present, and every failure involves a momentary lack of presence.

A leader’s presence inspires confidence in followers. Leadership presence is essential during a crisis; vital in today’s challenging market conditions. Those who are led only feel safe and confident if they feel connected to their leader.

Great leaders have presence – as do great sportspeople, actors and musicians. But what is presence? How can it be acquired and developed? Is there a link between presence and horses? Can horse whispering help corporate executives develop leadership presence?

Patsy Rodenburg hints at answers to some of these questions: ‘The horse whisperer has learnt to be fully present to the horse and the horse feels this energy. The horse is not ‘broken’ but obeys through mutual respect and equality’. So there may well be real leadership lessons to be learned from horse whispering. But what is presence, and how it can be developed?

What is presence?

On a workshop I was facilitating on ‘Influencing and Stakeholder Management’, I asked delegates to name the qualities of influential people. One member of the group answered ‘Presence: I don’t know what is, or how to define it – but I know when someone has it!’

In their book ‘Leadership Presence’ Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar define Leadership Presence as ‘the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others in order to motivate and inspire them to achieve a desired outcome’.

When a leading global credit card company recognised that managers who had been promoted on the basis of technical skills were failing to connect with employees, they enlisted the help of a leadership consultancy that uses theatre techniques to help managers enhance their leadership skills. Commanding presence and leading a group of people to achieve results isn’t about personal power – it is more about connecting with and empowering others.

Sean Kavanagh, CEO of the Ariel Group, defines it as ‘the ability to connect with the thoughts and feelings of others, in order to motivate and inspire them to achieve a desired outcome’.

The foundation of strong leadership is the ability to be present in a highly focused, non-distracted way. Employees would rather have less time with their leaders if there are no distractions during that time. Leaders who are truly present and in the moment also are better able to tap into their insight and instinct, and more aware of what is happening around them.

Kavanagh describes the emotional elements that business leaders use to inspire teams as ‘connecting to the hearts and minds of an audience to achieve a desired outcome’.

Many important leadership traits are also evident in young children (never work with children or animals), who tend naturally to be present by living fully in the moment – as many parents will testify as they struggle to get them dressed and ready to go out on a busy morning. It is adult ego that starts to run assumptions about how we look, and what other people think – detracting from the ability to be ‘in the moment’.

Effective leadership requires presence. Employees who are led this way feel inspired and motivated to do their best work, and make a positive contribution to performance and growth. Would leadership like this improve the performance of the Department of Transport – and that of other government departments, global corporates, large and small businesses? And might the added value even persuade the Taxpayers’ Association that investment in its development would be money well spent?

There is a belief that you either ‘have presence’ or you don’t. But presence, like any other attribute or expression of a person, is energy: the energy of being fully present and attentive in the moment. When we are fully present, we are totally engaged with what is happening; aware, focused, connected. It is a way of being that is described as ‘flow state’, or ‘in the zone’ – and it is the only way to achieve peak performance.

Can presence be developed?

‘Dog whisperer’ Cesar Millan writes about energy in a compelling way in his books ‘Cesar’s Way’ and ‘Cesar Millan – Use Cesar’s Way to Transform your Dog and Your Life’. In the latter, he links personal energy management and energy projection to Emotional Intelligence and ‘Primal Leadership’ (Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee). His television programmes demonstrate how dog owners can learn to be present, in the moment with a different kind of energy – and as they do, the behaviour of their dogs changes dramatically. He also writes about how horses also ‘speak energy’: ‘Monty Roberts, the famous horse whisperer taught the use of energy to tame and manage the behaviour of wild horses. Working through energy has been accepted by many in the horse community for decades’.

Brendon Carpenter, a horse trainer descended from generations of horse trainers describes how he often sees people having problems with their horse during clinics or lessons. He asks them how they feel about the relationship they have with the horse: ‘Within a short time we drill down to the core issue, and find that the person is scared of the horse. Before they even approach the horse, they envision how the horse is going to react.’ The thought process becomes the dominant belief system, and the horse ‘does exactly what the individual’s emotional communications has told it to do’.

Like the newly-promoted managers at the credit card company, a delegate on a LeadChange workshop felt that he did not connect with his team. He was invited to ‘connect’ with a horse. It quickly became evident to him and those observing that initially, there was zero connection. I explored with him how he knew that he connected with the people he most valued in life (his wife and children) – where, in himself, he felt connected with them. Accessing that sense of connection, he approached the horse again. It was immediately obvious that a connection now existed – the horse started following him around the arena (at liberty, with no head-collar or rope)! His learning was that connection with his team was a matter of ‘heart’ as well as ‘head’. His experience with a horse made him more self-aware, and facilitated his ability to really connect with his team.

The horse’s ability to reflect and respond to energy, combined with good coaching, is a valid, effective and proven way of improving leadership presence, and developing other essential leadership skills. As the UK head of a global telecoms business reflected on a LeadChange programme: ‘Eye-opening with immediate feedback. A great and applicable paradigm – forces you to be a change agent of yourself. You must use your leadership skills right away – and all of them!’ And in the words of a director of a global pharmaceutical firm: ‘A life-changing experience. The impact on the team has been profound.’

I wonder if even the Taxpayers’ Association might benefit from such a programme. . ?

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