Leadership Lessons from a Horse’s Mouth

Today’s guest post is from June Gunter, Ed. D. and CEO of TeachingHorse, LLC.


I am the Co-Founder and CEO of TeachingHorse, LLC. TeachingHorse provides leadership development and coaching through experiential learning with horses. Working with horses, people learn how to build trusting relationships, practice authenticity, and remain calm and confident in the face of uncertainty.

Several of my clients are on the path of becoming trusted advisors. Their work with horses has been a great way for them to practice developing intimacy and reducing their self-orientation.

Most of the clients I work with do not have issues with credibility or reliability. They are skilled experts with long track records of success – but they are staring squarely at a new reality. The complexity of the issues they are being asked to address is unprecedented. The information available to them is unreliable and changes quickly. The demand for innovation means that previous performance and expertise are only the equivalent of an entry fee and will no longer win the race.

It is the capacity to create trusting relationships that is often the defining factor in selection of both leaders and advisors.

Enter Horses

So what do horses have to teach leaders about being trusted advisors? To begin with, horses don’t care if you have an RN, MBA, MD or have CEO after your name. Horses will never ask you if you have reputation for being dependable or reliable. So we can just take credibility and reliability out of the equation for now.

For horses to place their trust in leaders, they must know four things about them.

  • One, that leaders are paying attention, and can detect even the most subtle shifts in the environment.
  • Two, that leaders can give them clear direction on how to respond to the shifts.
  • Three, that leaders are able to follow that direction with focused energy, providing guidance on the pace with which to respond.
  • Four, that leaders display congruence of their inner and outer expressions. Ultimately, horses must know that the leaders have their best interest as their source of motivation at all times.

It all starts with saying “Hello.” One of the first things we teach is how to approach a horse in a way that creates confidence. It is a process of mutual decision-making that begins with taking a step towards the horse. If they continue to look relaxed and comfortable with your presence, take another step closer. If they look anxious or unsure, stop, take a deep breath to ground yourself, and then take a small step back. This reassures the horse that you are actually paying attention to the signals they are sending, that you are willing to respect their experience and make adjustments to honor their choice. With this simple process, the horse learns that you are not a threat.

Blue Leadership

One of the horses I work with frequently is a large white draft horse named Blue. She weighs about 2000 pounds. Blue is a fabulous teacher. In one particular session I was working with a board of directors for a healthcare organization. The participant saying hello to Blue was a petite woman, maybe 5 feet tall, with no horse experience.

As she began moving closer to Blue, I could hear her say tentatively, “Hi Blue.  Are we good?  Can I come a bit closer?”  I stopped the woman in her tracks and said, “What question do you have of Blue right now?”  She replied, “Is it safe for me to take another step closer?”

My reply to her was, “As long as that is your question, neither one of you is safe. It is not Blue’s job to convince you that you are safe with her. It is your job to show Blue that she is safe with you, just as if she was a patient in your hospital.”

I could sense that what I said resonated deeply with this person. Her energy changed completely. The woman lifted her head and squared her shoulders. You could feel the conviction running through her veins. At the same time, her eyes filled with respect, appreciation and love. She looked at Blue and said, “I got you girl. You are safe with me.”

Much to her surprise, Blue lowered her head, a signal that a horse is feeling safe, and Blue took the last few steps that closed the gap between them. With the woman’s hand now placed gently and confidently on Blue’s forehead, the connection between them created a palpable hush over the entire group.

I asked the woman what changed. She said, “I did.” And she was right.

As it turns out, this person is a gifted nurse leader. She tapped into a deeply held value that can get lost in the hustle and bustle of executive life. She moved her attention from self to other with a commitment to earn trust.

In the face of uncertainty, fear takes over when too much of our attention is on the self. Turn your attention to those you are leading or serving with a clear intention to act in their best interests. Trust will grow.


For more information about leadership development with horses contact June Gunter at [email protected].

Does Multitasking Ruin Your Ability to Multitask?

Last week I went on a gorgeous scenic train ride through the Canadian Rockies. We were pretty much entranced by the scenery, which only got better with each mile.

A couple seated near us took it in differently. In their 30s, they each spent about 50% of their time reading a Kindle (latest model, her), or an iPhone kindle book or iPhone game (him).  Another 25% of their time was spent sleeping.  The remaining 25% was jumping up with their (very cool hi-powered) cameras and going to the open-air platform to snap a few pics, to then return to their digital or somnolent worlds.

I felt myself feeling judgmental, which of course is my problem, not theirs. At least I didn’t say anything. But in the end, it got me curious.

Who does that?
From the BBC comes a possible answer.
A study reported in the British Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported in the BBC News Blog suggests that three skills are critical for successful multi-tasking. They are:

·        Paying attention and screening out irrelevant information

·        Organizing working memory

·        Ability to switch tasks.

The study identified two groups of people: multitaskers, and non-multitaskers, and applied a classic psychological test of each skill to each group. In each case, the non-multitaskers out-performed the multitaskers. 

Say the study’s authors: 
"The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking," Professor Nass said.
"The irony here is that when you ask the low multitaskers, they all think they’re much worse at multitasking and the high multitaskers think they’re gifted at it."
Several of the commenters on the blogpost insist either that they themselves are excellent multitaskers, or that the tests selected do not in fact test for multi-tasking. Me, I’m inclined to go with the authors.

The study authors themselves suggest that the remaining “pressing question” is whether multitasking degrades skills, or people with degraded skills are drawn to multitasking. Me, I figure it’s a classic predisposition-plus-opportunity thing, not unlike alcoholism or a bad sense of humor.

I hypothesize that playing an iPhone game while travelling through the Canadian Rockies on a sight-seeing train probably qualifies as multi-tasking. While I couldn’t judge how well they were doing in the digital world, I suggest they were doing badly at noticing the analog world, and their switching appeared pretty clumsy.  As to sleeping: hey, what do I know what their nights were like? Maybe they were massively jet-lagged.

But enough about others. I wrote the first paragraph of this blogpost watching a re-run of Two and a Half Men, one I’ve probably seen twice before. And I stopped in the middle to upgrade to Snow Leopard. Plus I like my coffee a lot, and like to claim it keeps me sharp, though I’m increasingly doubting that. So I’m not exactly pure snow here.

Plus, it’s not a value thing. There are a lot of things in this world that require being good at multi-tasking. More than in the past. The ability to focus and concentrate may still be critical to some things, but probably not as many, proportionately, as in the past.

But I do think focus and mindfulness and paying attention are critical to trust. Trust may be more rare, less frequently required, than in the past; but the nature of its requirements haven’t changed.

Maybe the big question is: can we switch gears between multi-task mode and single-minded focus mode? Is there a flip-switch move we can make, an exercise we can conduct, that will let us enter the other realm?

Judging from the couple next to us, it’s doubtful. Their social interaction, unlike most on the train, was pretty much nil, even with each other. And judging from my own experience, changing habits is awfully, awfully hard.

It takes a lot of focus to be able to multi-process, especially since multi-processing degrades the ability to focus. 


Why Multi-Tasking May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Man concentrating on a letterIf you speak and teach corporate seminars, as I do, then you know what it feels like to look out at a sea of Blackberries. And, in many companies, at open-lidded notebooks too.

At first, I took this as a personal insult. That turned out to be not very useful.

Nor was it useful to assume it was simply a comment on the low quality of my teaching and a challenge to improve. Not that I couldn’t—but I noticed it wasn’t just me who was being crack-berried, it was everyone.

Now I simply note at session outset that an inability to leave clients and co-workers to fend for themselves until the next break amounts to a neurotic mixture of insecurity and arrogance.

And then I let it go. Well, mostly. (And yes, I’m not without sin either when I’m in an audience.)

Little did I know that there was some truth behind my accusation of diminished mental health. The Wall Street Journal’s Melinda Beck reports:

"Many cases of Alzheimer’s do start out as ‘senior moments,’" says P. Murali Doraiswamy, chief of Biological Psychiatry at Duke University Medical School and co-author of "The Alzheimer’s Action Plan," a new book for people who are worried…

Names and dates that take time to retrieve "generally aren’t well-archived," says Dr. Doraiswamy. You may not have paid much attention to them in the first place — especially if you were multitasking. "Your brain has an inexhaustible amount of storage, but you can’t have too many programs running at the same time, or it’s hard to attend to them," says Gayatri Devi, a psychiatrist and neurologist who runs the New York Memory Center. That may explain the in-one-ear-and-out-the-other phenomenon that plagues some people.

Paying attention is critical to laying down memories, which scientists now think are distributed all around the brain.

The computer metaphor strikes me as appropriate. If you think of our brains as analogous to computer memory, there’s a trade-off between memory and processing speed. Multi-tasking is a choice to allocate more of our brainpower to processing—and hence less to the storage of memory. That choice inevitably lets some data slide by. And since we haven’t yet got the ability to add more memory chips, it’s a meaningful choice.

I recall recently reading (In the New Yorker? Ah, I’ve been multi-tasking too much.) A story about the old Hindu spiritual leaders who would memorize days of stories from the holy literature, to be told at large gatherings. With the advent of literacy and tape recordings, the ability to memorize such large amounts of data disappeared from society.

The same was true for rural folk music in the US, which Alan Lomax presciently understood in the 30s and 40s when he did those great field recordings for the Smithsonian. It was true when kids were allowed calculators in school and forgot how to do long division. And it’s true now when I recall my loved ones’ speed-dial numbers, but not the underlying phone numbers they represent.

The article goes on to say:

“The richer you can make the experience, the more memorable it is…It’s just as important to forget extraneous things and minimize mental clutter,” says Dr. Devi. You can’t dump those 1960s TV jingles from long-term memory, but you can free up your short-term memory by using calendars, lists and personal-digital assistants. "Put the burden on gadgets," says Dr. Doraiswamy.

Again, this strikes me as good commonsense. You are what you think about.

In The Monk and the Philosopher (thanks Pierre), a French philosopher and his son, a Buddhist monk, touch on this issue. The father casts doubt on the ability of the human mind to focus for long periods of time, as the monks claim to do in meditation.

The monk-son retorts that Western minds are simply universalizing their own disinclination to pay attention: that in fact, paying attention is simply a habit, which we can choose to cultivate—or not.