The Gentle Side of Force – 8 skills of leadership Iearned from my friend the horse whisperer

My friend Steve is a horse whisperer, was one long before Robert Redford made the label famous. Steve’s been a cowboy forever, a genuine, sure ‘nuff, tall in the saddle hand-me-that-rope cowboy. He’s knows his way around a horse, knows how to care for them, and knows how to handle them. If you’re interested you can read about him and horse whispering here.

The fascinating thing about “horse whispering” to me is that it works and works very, very well.  Effective leaders have wonderfully developed skills of persuasion. They seldom, if ever, resort to barking orders. They don’t have to make people do what they want them to do or what needs to be done.

Granted, there are two sides to this. Finding willing, responsible, cooperative, skilled employees is a necessary component. But we don’t always have them, can’t always find them, or shouldn’t always count on having them at our disposal. We might have to get the job done with those who are reluctant or even downright resistant.

Please pardon the obvious correlation between associates/employees and horses. You, being intelligent and intuitive, already understand that I do not mean to imply that associates or employees are brutish or inhuman. I use the parallel in the sense that we must all take people who possess a natural independent will and somehow persuade them to cooperate and contribute to the cause or enterprise in such a way that neither party suffers injury or humiliation.

I always thought that horses had to be “broken.” I’ve seen the TV shows and western movies where the brave cowboy gets on a horse and forces the objecting animal into submission. Thankfully these days our understanding has increased and we approach the subject with more respect for the animal and more understanding about how to gain the role as leader. We have made the same progress in business and organizational dynamics too. I hope the days of the bullying supervisor are over.

I was so interested in Steve the Horse Whisperer’s technique that I researched just how it is he gets an untamed, unfamiliar animal to do what he wants it to do. I discovered that his techniques are remarkably parallel to those of effective leaders who understand how to apply the gentle side of force. 

Here is how it works:

  1. Establish Leadership and Partnership. Show that you are the Leader. Someone has to lead, particularly in our culture. Some cultures favor consensus but even there someone rises to the place of prominence and becomes the visible focus of leadership. Indeed, the capacity to establish leadership is a primary indicator of leadership. It sounds like circular reasoning but it really is axiomatic – leaders lead. Put even a few people together and give them an assignment, even a simple one. If at least one of them does not begin to articulate what needs to be done, if they do not begin to take charge, nothing will happen. I wrote about this awhile back which you can read about it here.
  2. Talk, communicate, establish two-way communication. The gentle side of force does not resort to issued decrees, broadcast statements, or memos. They have their place; in some cases it may be absolutely necessary. But talk to your people, face to face if at all possible. A global survey of senior executives and managers conducted by NFI Research solicited input about methods of communication with staff. One respondent said E-mail is great for scheduling and confirming meetings, phone is good for quick conversations that require two-way communications and a memo is preferred for long background pieces. In-person and scheduled meetings are always the best for any discussion requiring true dialogue and consensus.” Really good leaders know how…and when…to employ all three.
  3. Let the horse communicate when he is ready to accept you as leader. Establish who is the leader and who is the follower. It might take a while. If you’re new on the job or you have a new hire, understand that gaining someone’s confidence might take a day or two, probably longer. Don’t try to be buddies, try to be associates. Maintain the trappings and systems that conduct power safely. Every component has its place. Run the flag up the pole and see who salutes.
  4. Maintain connection and association, do not avoid physical presence. Keep your eyes on each other. The best, most successful, most effective leaders are those who maintain presence. General Patton was everywhere, so was General Bradley. If you want to turn powerful people into allies instead of enemies, keep them close. The emphasis on team building and team dynamics has made MBWA – Management By Wandering Around – popular again. First identified by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their big seller In Search of Excellence, the concept manifests itself when managers and leaders stay engaged within the workforce.
  5. Prove that you can be trusted, that you will not harm or compromise them. People are not stupid but they are skeptical. Just about everyone has been had before. Built over time and repeated experience another word for this is integrity. You are who you appear to be. I will pass through this quickly because the subject of integrity deserves a much larger treatment and is on the schedule for inclusion in this series in a few days.
  6. Test respect by asking that followers follow. Salesmen ask for the sale. Leaders ask for the lead. There comes a time, actually there will probably come many times, when you as leader ask someone to follow. You can buy a person’s time and talent, you must earn their respect and enthusiasm.
  7. Ask for a response – do not assume the follower will know intuitively. You will probably still need to point out what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and when it is due. In short, lead. Good delegation technique solicits a verbal contract of agreement, an oral memo of understanding that lays out what is to be done, who will do it, and when it will be completed.
  8. Saddle up and ride! When the gentle side of force has done its work, you can do yours. Lead! Pursue the goals, press forward, get going. You don’t do this just to show who’s the boss. You do this because you have worlds to conquer, places to go, objectives to reach. You’ve gained someone’s trust so make the most of it. 

Power Plays have a point. They deserve my time and your attention for the purpose of the ethical pursuit of noble causes whether they are for business or for charity.

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