‘Savvy’ is described as ‘knowing what to do, when to do it and why you are doing it’. Seeking then to preface the term ‘leadership’ with ‘savvy’ becomes something of a no-brainer. With this understanding of savvy, which leader today wouldn’t want to be known as a ‘savvy leader’? However, to better understand savvy leadership we need to turn to an unlikely source‌the world of horses. But to set the scene let me rewind a little to a conversation I had a couple of months ago.

Our family had been invited to lunch with friends who farm in the KZN Midlands; an inviting venue which is unique within the diverse splendour of the tapestry that makes up the South African landscape. During lunch our host Carlene told me about her work with her horses, Friesians � magnificent animals and a breed that I was told was once the choice of William the Conqueror. Carlene had studied the art of horse whispering under the renowned American ‘Horse Whisperer’ Pat Parelli. ‘Horse whispering’ I learnt, is about learning a specific body language that enables one to ‘communicate with horses’. Carlene’s passion for this, and a curiosity fuelled by distant recollections of the Robert Redford film, ‘The Horse Whisperer’ was enough to spur me to pursue this further. It wasn’t long after this initial encounter that Barrie, a colleague in TomorrowToday.biz, and I made a repeat journey to the Midlands to experience firsthand what this was all about. It was to prove to be a life-impacting experience.
Not sure what to expect we listened as Carlene first introduced us to the breed in general and then specifically to several of her Friesians. For instance, breeding Friesians we learnt is a very deliberate, intentional and closely monitored process in order to safeguard selection and standards. Then there were Carlene’s Friesians, each with a personal story which was told in detail and with the same enthusiasm reserved for a parent talking about their children. There was Holly, who as a result of having been beaten prior to arriving on Carlene’s farm, was skittish, nervous and eager to please � in fact too eager to please and obedient for the wrong reason � fear of punishment; then there was Cole, self-assured, laid-back and a charmingly reluctant worker; Rosa, a filly with a pronounced concave back evidence that she had been ridden at too early an age, was a herd-fixated personality who had yet to wean herself from her foal. An over-anxious parent if ever there was one! This resulted in her displaying behaviour marked by all the obvious symptoms of separation anxiety. By the time we were finished we felt that we too had a history with the horses‌we knew their story. And knowing their story was fundamental establishing a trusting relationship that would enable effective communication to take place.
This was followed by Carlene demonstrating how by using savvy horsemanship one can get these horses to perform amazing things. What makes this so remarkable is the knowledge that one is dealing here with prey animals who would regard you and I as natural predators. Flight is the instinct of prey animals and so having a horse follow you, much like a well trained dog, without ropes and incentives is truly remarkable. Also impressive was the demonstration that had the horses voluntarily enter a horse-box, an action that would go against every survival instinct they possess. Even more remarkable is the ability to learn and master some of the basics of this ‘horse whispering’ that allowed Barrie and me to share in this experience.
The lessons are profound as they are numerous. Here then are just some of the insights those wanting to become savvy leaders.
The whole basis of horse whispering is built on the assumption that there exists a better way to work with horses than by demanding compliance and using force to ensure control and obedience. It is based on developing a relationship with the horse which is based on mutual respect and trust. In the horse whispering this means knowing the temperament of the horse and taking time to play various games with the horse through which this relationship is developed. Without spending time in this space, getting the performance from the horse would simply not be possible. The parallel lessons from this in developing a basis for savvy leadership are obvious. In an emerging connection economy relationship and the return on relationship is all important. Trust and respect cannot be assumed and require intentional time and effort. What works with one person will not necessarily work with the next person. Savvy leaders will be people who understand this and who are willing to adapt their preferred style in order to establish the necessary rapport required. How well do you know those who you lead? How well do you know their story and to what extend does their past influence their behaviour as you and others experience it?
What I found interesting in the process of horse whispering was the role and place for discipline. A lack of cooperation on the part of the horse was interpreted as a lack of respect. This did not always mean that the horse was not complying with the instruction given but the way in which they went about the given task could indicate a lack of respect. Anyone who has ever had a teenager in the house will know exactly what this looks like! Discipline and boundaries are important. In the past talk of moving from a ‘command and control’ style of leadership to one that is more cooperative and cultivating has often been met with concern by leaders who assume this means that there is no place for discipline. ‘Cooperation and cultivating’ suggests Thomas Malone in The Future of Work, should not be seen as an opposite of ‘command and control’ when it comes to styles of leadership. Malone suggests both are supersets in that they include the whole range of possibilities without excluding appropriate discipline measures that are necessary in developing relationships based on trust and respect.
The horse-box demonstration was also relevant when considering change within a business environment. Change as we repeated hear, and know through personal experience, is constant. Adapting to it is more natural some that for others. For instance Generation X (those in their twenties to mid-thirties) need little encouragement to change. All you have to say is ‚change‛ and they change; in fact should you say, ‚don’t change‛ ‌they will change anyway! For a horse, the horse-box represents a very real threat (change), yet it could be the very thing that transports them to a better place than is their current reality. Each of the horses approached the box in different ways, (so similar to people and change) and interesting there were also some definite ‘rules’ to the process. For example, avoiding the horse-box by going down either side of the box was not an option. In any change process it is necessary to clarify what is not optional within the process, what represents ‘going down the side of the horse-box’ as it were.
For some of the more reluctant horses, entering the horse-box was made attractive by making the external environment more uncomfortable that the horse-box. Entering the horse-box then becomes the better option than remaining outside of the box. Creating discomfort (through the use of applying rhythmic pressure such as clapping or waving) is an integral part of horse whispering. Knowing how, when and why it is necessary to apply appropriate pressure is a vital part of savvy leadership. It becomes a way of nurturing personal growth and development and requires knowing who it is you are dealing with if it is to be applied effectively.
One final point of interest to leave with you for the next time you have the opportunity to make friends with a horse: Stoke don’t pat! Patting a horse (rhythmic pressure) will only serve to send the horse away from you and most likely leave you feeling like the horse ‘doesn’t like you’‌in spite of your ‘friendly’ approach. Horses need to be stroked and to hear Carlene put it, ‚Dogs and men are patted, horses and women are stroked‛. Not that I am suggesting you stroke your staff‌but in building meaningful relationships with them, at least make sure you are not ‘sending them away’!
Thomas W Malone, The Future of Work, Harvard Business School Press, Boston 2004 (ISBN1-59139-125-3)
For further information on how you and / or your team could benefit from a Horse Whispering experience see ourHorse Whispering Web Page or contact Keith on 083 262 5015

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