Horses, Leadership, and Leadership Models

Views on leadership, leadership qualities and leadership models diverge widely. Models of leadership have focused on situational theories (e.g. Hersey & Blanchard), behavioral styles (e.g. Blake and Mouton), traits theory (e.g. Derue, Nahrgang, Wellmand & Humphrey), as well functional theories (Kouzes and Posner).  Some argue that leaders are born, some that leaders are made, and others that leaders are a combination of innate leadership psychology, emotional intelligence, and learned or groomed behaviours or habits.  Ideas around leadership qualities vary widely and so far it appears that no-one has been able to develop a definitive list of leadership qualities.

Leadership presence is a concept that appears to have a shared understanding. We recognize some people as being leaders due to their presence as opposed to their corporate or economic status. James Scouller defines it as “the magnetic, radiating effect you have on others when you’re being the authentic you, giving them your full respect and attention, speaking honestly and letting your unique character traits flow. As leaders, we must be technically competent to gain others’ respect, but it’s our unique genuine presence that inspires people and prompts them to trust us – in short, to want us as their leader.”

I work with people to develop their awareness of their own leadership qualities and challenges. I do this by putting people together with horse – on the ground. Because horses are all about leadership and because they give such great immediate feedback they are perfect partners in leadership development.

A model of equine leadership described by Carolyn Resnick, a renowned equine trainer, divides horses into 3 groups: leaders, dominants, and followers. Leaders in the herd are often mistaken as omegas or lowest ranking as they do not exhibit competitive behaviours, often spend their time alone, and do not display signs of paying attention to other herd mates – when in fact they are paying keen attention. Followers are easy to confuse with leaders although they may be more likely to be physically closer to herd mates. Most horses fall into the middle group – dominants, displaying competitive behaviours that could be mistaken for leadership. These horses are vying for position; they don’t want to be last to eat and drink and want to be as close to the top of the hierarchy as their fitness permits. This is a survival strategy that has enabled horses to succeed as a species for 400 million years.

Aside from the three groups defined above, we believe that all members of the herd support a distribution of leadership in the herd and hold a place of leadership specific to their abilities and to the needs of the herd over time. The alpha mare or stallion (the leaders) still have overall leadership responsibilities for the herd but some jobs are delegated. Research has shown that some horses will act as pacifiers and assist horses to “kiss and make up” after disputes. Some act as caregivers, looking out for foals, the injured, or elders. Some will enforce discipline even on higher ranking members for the betterment of the herd. In fact, this distributed model of leadership enables the herd to adapt and function under a variety of threats and in a variety of environments.

How does leadership show up in humans? As noted above it is not as straightforward to define – with the possible exception of leadership presence. If we look at the corporate or social model today we tend to see leadership defined by title and salary, by dress, postal code, and by visibility. Humans don’t appear to have a shared understanding of leadership but tend to confuse outward temporal signs of success with leadership. A great example of this confusion is playing out in Washington D.C., in Ottawa, and in many governing jurisdictions today as well as in corporations and the media. The absence of a shared understanding of good leadership leads to cynicism, division, and greater competition.

What does leadership look like to you?

Who are the leaders you are willing to follow and trust?

What qualities do you require in a leader?

What are leadership behaviours? How do you exhibit leadership?

What does good leadership feel like to those who are being led?