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Savvy Leadership: Learning from Horses by Keith Coats, Tomorrow

As I write this I am once again in the Dargle area located in the picturesque Midlands of Kwa Zulu Natal. It is a place that when created surely must have brought a smile to the Creator; reflection of a job well done! It is a special place, made even more special by the activity that brings me here: HorsePlay. Horse Whispering is not new but in so far as it applies to leadership development, is unique. A brief history is that many years ago, at this very spot, I was listening enthralled to Carlene Bronner explain about learning the art of natural horsemanship. She spoke with passion about the difference it was making to her relationships – and not just those with her horses, but also with people! I have known Carl forever it seems and a social visit to her and her husband John’s farm was when I first heard of this unique way of working with horses. I found myself wanting to experience the magic myself and, curious to explore any potential parallels there might be to leadership, made a plan to join her for a day of horse whispering. The rest as they say, is history.

Today we use horses to teach leaders about leadership. I know of no better way to help those responsible for leadership – or those being groomed for leadership, to understand the leadership challenges they will encounter in the new world of work. If the world is changing, and we know it is, then it follows that leadership thinking and practice needs to change. In many instances this is easier said than done as, more often than not, successful leadership moulds prove particularly stubborn to any suggestions of change. Many leaders will readily acknowledge the changing context of leadership and may even acknowledge the need to change their own leadership approach. Yet, in spite of this, they still fail to make any meaningful adjustments. Well-worn habits prove hard to break and add some successful formula / experience into the mix, and you have the equivalent of leadership mould superglue!

‘Savvy’ is a word commonly used in the world of natural horsemanship and it is translated as knowing the why, what, when and how to doing something. Applying that meaning to leadership is both apt and instructional. Horse Whispering provides an experience that evokes profound thinking around the challenges of what it takes to lead into the future and specifically, in the context of the emerging Connection Economy. It is an experience that acts as a mirror to one’s own leadership ability and serves as an exceptional understudy to the Invitational Leadership model that we frequently speak about in TomorrowToday. Quite simply, it is an experience like no other. This isn’t the first article I’ve written on leadership and horse whispering, and I suspect it won’t be the last; however being here has once again made avoiding further reflection and writing impossible. In part my motivation for doing so is to hopefully encourage you to seriously consider investing in this experience – especially those of you for whom the Midlands is easily accessible. Take it as a challenge – a challenge I would count a privilege to get to share with you…but more on that later.
One of the biggest challenges of leadership is to get the right kind of behaviour and effort from those being led and to do so through cooperation rather than through coercion and compliance. How often have you heard the sentiment expressed that can be represented by the exasperated leader saying, “If I turn my back for a second…if I don’t continually push those workers / my team…then nothing ever happens!” This type of directive leadership is actually more of a reflection on the Leader than on his or her team! It is a leadership type that requires consistently being ‘online’ – in other words it is dependent the presence of a direct, visible and tangible chain of command between the leader and those being led. To go ‘off-line’ would have disastrous results and so we continue to develop stronger lines; rules and procedures that tether the leader and the followers even more closely. To do so seems natural and right – after all, ‘isn’t this what strong leadership all about’ is our reasoning. It makes sense given our lack of trust in others to do what they are told without repeatedly being told. So ‘online’ leadership becomes the norm and is reinforced by the traditional carrots, sticks and measures – and so the game is played. For a time doing online work with your horse is necessary. It is necessary in order to create the trust and bond that will make doing ‘off-line’ (or what in natural horsemanship is referred to as ‘liberty’) work possible.

And this is when the magic happens! Having done the necessary groundwork and established the relationship and earned the right to lead, your horse is freed from the restraining rope (line). The trust bond between you and your horse now depends on an invisible line that magically connects the two of you together. Synchronicity and harmony ensue as cooperation replaces coercion and willingness replaces force. It is at this point that all the earlier effort and learning concerning the art of natural horsemanship – the ‘whispering’, makes sense. This is the point at which it all comes together like a crescendo to a musical score. There was the need to learn the new ‘language’; the need to fully understand the animal with which you are partnering; the need perhaps to conquer a fear in the learning process; the insight or acknowledgment that there is indeed a ‘better way’ to exercise leadership than what the conventional wisdom would have us believe; the need to learn how to effectively use the props available, including the necessary elements of pressure and reward. And for each of these aspects that underpin the unfolding magic, sits profound leadership analogies and lessons that await discovery. It is in the process of this discovery that leadership mindsets shift and new paradigms begin to emerge.
I have seen individuals and teams transformed by this experience. It invites ongoing reflection that prompt changes to the shape and form of one’s own leadership mindset and behaviour. It is an experience that no amount of classroom time can replicate and speaking as one who frequently lectures and teaches strategic leadership, if I had my way, every leadership academy and programme would be routed through this bit of Midland’s magic.


Having ridden horses at various points in my life I was excited to get into the Midlands to meet Carlene and her beautiful horses. Initially I was a little disappointed when I realised that we would not actually be riding the horses! But my disappointment was short lived as we got to know the HorsePlay team.


Our management team of varying individuals were challenged mentally, physically and most unusually, spiritually, as Carl and her team tested us with various horse tasks
Most surprising was the realisation that working with these beautiful Friesians is rather similar to managing people. That for each of our own personal behaviours, actions and emotions there is a defined response. And let me tell you, if you don’t communicate with the horses in the manner they recognise or appreciate, you have got no chance! A humbling experience, and skills that can be bought into any management team.

A brilliant, humbling and unique experience with surprising results

Fearne, Manline

These are the points I learnt and had reinforced in this hands-on practical experience for 

being an effective leader,( note these are complemented by leadership principles of Stephen Covey and Insights): 

    •    Build trust in order to lead

    •    Get their respect- build it through consistency

    •    Get to know your people – friendly game

    •    Be aware, know your own motives, see it from their view –           seek to understand

    •    Get out of your comfort zone

    •    Come from a win- win approach

    •    Adapt your style to what works for them- all are different

    •    It is a partnership

    •    Do it together – from their side

    •    Show clear direction

    •    Communicate once, clearly

    •    Focus

    •    No need to keep up the pressure, set direction then let                  them do it

    •    Re-direct only when needed

    •    Listen for and watch body language for need for re-              directing

    •    Motivate by rewarding and thanking them

Thank you for a wonderful opportunity to learn and a big thanks to the horses. Helen.


Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It's about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have for your work, and you have to inspire team-mates and customers.

Robin S. Sharma

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