I recently took advantage of the glorious late summer sun to give one of my horses his annual bath. Lily, the lovely little 12 year old who helps out around the stables, was very excited at the prospect of bath time for her horsey friend. Now, Brandy is a big boy and likes to throw his weight around. He’s the youngest and most definitely the boss of our herd of horses. A very autocratic leader, he bullies the others to get his own way. Whilst he has more respect around humans and does understand the concept of leadership, barging and bolting are just a couple of the tricks he has up his sleeve to avoid doing anything he doesn’t want to. So, you’re probably getting the picture here. Half a tonne of big, bargy Brandy with attitude. Not a horse for the faint-hearted.
So, whilst she is a very sensible young girl who is used to being around our four legged friends, you can understand the slight anxiety that I was feeling as I tentatively handed over the bucket of soapy water to young Lily. I hovered close by, ready to intervene pronto if Brandy decided a bath was not on his agenda.
I needn’t have worried. That big burly horse let little Lily cover him from head to tail with soapy water, fuss around him, hose him down and then plait his mane in cute little pigtails. She chatted away to him, talking him through bath time and telling him what a good boy he was whilst he rested his head on the fence and snoozed in the summer sun. Now let me tell you, if that had been anyone else bathing that horse it would have been an entirely different story – mostly involving kicked over buckets, sopping wet people and a dry horse with a glint in his eye.
So what is it about a 12 year old girl that this big bold horse takes notice of? And, importantly, what on earth has this got to do with leadership?
Horses need and want strong leadership. It’s how they operate in the wild and it’s what they look for when interacting with people on the ground; and Brandy demands strong leadership from his human handlers.
The adults down at the stables would have approached Brandy’s bath time quite differently to Lily. With great trepidation, anticipating an uncooperative horse and a stressful experience, our beliefs about his attitude would have surely got in the way. And horses, being highly intuitive animals, can pick up on the slightest doubt, hesitation or lack of conviction and will react accordingly. Usually with objection.
Lily however approached that horse and the task in hand with great delight, with positive intention, and utter belief in the goodness of that horse.
As leaders, we need to believe in the people that work hard for us. Even if sometimes they challenge us with their behaviour and attitudes. We need to come back to a place of positive intention and have faith. We need to invest time and energy into understanding and learning to trust the more ‘difficult’ employees in our teams. Changing how we approach challenging individuals will most certainly evoke a different, and quite possibly more positive, response from them. Is it worth it? Why not give it a go and see the results for yourself.
“Work for someone who believes in you, because when they believe in you, they’ll invest in you.”
Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo!