A Sydney-based business is using horses to teach business leaders and senior managers core leadership skills. My Business trotted along to see what it’s all about.
Frontier Leadership is the combination of the two very different skillsets of its co-founders.
James Meurer is a horse handler and riding instructor, who has worked with some of Australia’s most prominent racing identities including Gai Waterhouse and Monty Roberts. His business partner, Emma Kirkwood, is an HR consultant specialising in leadership coaching and recruitment.
Both operate their own small businesses within their respective fields, but joined forces to create Frontier Leadership after Emma saw value in bringing James’ skills to the business world.
“We’re working with an animal that is naturally gregarious, they are really natural followers, they live as a heard, they work out a social structure typically with a lead mare … that lead mare takes them to the safe grounds,” James explained.
“So leadership is a massive part of their life, and they feel secure and safe through good leadership.
“We’re also working with an animal that needs to be led – we’re bringing them into our world; they need to clearly understand what we want from them in order to create a willing partnership.”
He went on to emphasise the point of creating willing followers of these horses, rather than forcing them to begrudgingly do something against their will.
Sound familiar? Most employers will easily draw the connection with themselves and their employees, and the challenge of encouraging and empowering employees to create a willing partnership for mutual benefit.
Putting this ‘neigh-sayer’ in his place
I have to admit to being quite sceptical when the invitation to a media demonstration event among the horses hit my inbox, but curiosity got the better of me, and so I went along.
One of my biggest doubts came down to verbal communication, that “horses can’t talk back”. But as James explained, we communicate so much non-verbally – with body language, eye contact, posture, speed of motions and so forth.
Yet sadly we often overlook this by being overly reliant on verbal communication, and only through working with a “partner” that can’t talk back do we really come to understand the significance of these non-verbal forms of communication.
“The steps that James works through, which we then teach the participants, are steps which you can then go back into the workplace and directly relate to your relationships, with either your direct reports, your suppliers, your clients and your senior management,” Emma said.
“It’s a rapport-building process which then gives you influence, which is leadership.”
She added that people “are always telling you something before they verbally say something” and that most employment issues could have been addressed much earlier by not waiting until an issue is verbally raised but when it becomes apparent through other ways.
The exercise we did was designed to be simple but direct – challenge the horse for dominance, earn its trust and respect, and then watch it willingly follow its new leader (i.e. you).
James went first to demonstrate the task, then each of the journalists and writers present had their turn.
Personally, I have no real history with horses at all: my experience with these majestic animals to this point was limited to pony rides as a primary schooler. So how on earth would I ever get a horse to consider me its leader?
My anxiety rose tenfold when I was told I would be working with Bondi – the sassiest and most dominant of the horses on the estate (the horses are matched with the participant according to basic personality types to encourage a mutually willing partnership).
But I swallowed these nerves and tried to present a commanding presence. I had faith in James as my instructor, and drew on my experience as the owner of rambunctious Labradors to command attention and respect.
Bondi quickly began trotting in laps around the arena, and I could control her speed with my physical proximity to her and the veracity of my hand gestures. Save for one brief moment that I let my eye contact slip and she immediately attempted to change course.
I then twice got her to change direction on my command.
And just as James had demonstrated, it became apparent that I had won Bondi’s trust and respect. Her head began to lower, her ears rotated to be fixated on me and her trotting circle narrowed as edged closer to me.
Then, as per James’ instruction, I stopped and turned my back to Bondi. Seconds later, she was gently nuzzling my arm and following me around the arena.
I was her new leader, and she my loyal new follower.
My biggest takeaway
I was only in the arena with Bondi for maybe 10 or 15 minutes but that was enough to deliver a really concerted lesson: the importance of eye contact. To gain the horse’s respect and trust, you cannot take your eyes of their eye as it trots around the ring.
But blankly staring in their direction doesn’t count – you have to be really present in what you are doing, focused on what you are thinking and what you are asking of the horse.
Lose that focus, the connection breaks and the horse will try to do its own thing instead. Let it do its own thing, and any shot you have at earning their respect is lost.
It’s a lesson that has obvious relevance in business too – be present and actively engaged with employees, managers, customers and stakeholders or risk them thinking you’re disinterested in them and venturing out in their own direction.
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