How a Horse Named Lucky Taught Me a Lesson in Leadership
I was standing in 4-inch thick, perfectly combed dirt ready to face one of my lifetime fears. The indoor arena had a light chill and dust could be seen swirling in the air. A dozen of us, teamed up in pairs, were standing face to face with an 1100-pound, ready-to-kill-you animal. It’s eyes intimidating, the power it held was extraordinary and with one swift kick: you could be dead. My heart was pumping at a high rate as I recalled a childhood memory of falling off one of these creatures.
I signed up for a 2-day, hands-on leadership course where a good majority of classroom time didn’t involve using desks. The classroom was held in an indoor arena and the “hands on” portion was to lead and direct a horse.
You read that right, a horse. I hated horses. I guess I didn’t really hate them, but I was certainly afraid of them. “I paid money for this,” I thought to myself. “How in the world does this have anything to do with leadership training?”
This course guaranteed 4 leadership outcomes:
- Confident Humility
- Being Responsible
- Motiving with Fierce Resolve
- Being a Genuine Partner.
For this article, I will solely focus on Confident Humility and explain how this four-legged creature dramatically changed my view on leadership.
What is Confident Humility?
“Confident Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis.
Standing in the middle of the arena the instructor held a device in her hand and explained how the tool was to be used. This tool, called a carrot–not the vegetable but a device–if used correctly, would help lead and guide your horse. This carrot is about 10 feet in length and looked much like a 6-foot rope tied to the end of golf club shaft. The tool was to be used for two reasons that oddly seemed to contradict each other. First, the carrot was used as a calming mechanism, or to help create a safe environment for the horse. Second, it was used as a whip or a way to help motivate the horse to follow directions.
My turn came far too quickly and the carrot was now being gripped tightly in my hand. I followed directions given earlier with perfection. I slowly lifted the carrot over the horse and then softly allowed the rope portion to slide over the head, neck, back, and then hind quarters. I would lift and repeat this pattern until I felt a safe environment had been reached.
“Good job everyone” the instructor said. “The next challenge is walking backwards.”
Still nervous and trying to slow my heart, I told the instructor I have been doing that for years and personally showed her. “This dirt isn’t going to slow me down!” I shouted, sarcastically. She gave me a courtesy laugh and said it was now the horses turn. I took a deep breath, lifted the carrot and with a horrible attempt, tried to back up the horse. I failed. My second attempt didn’t fare much better, fail. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, yep you guessed it, all failed. As my attempts continued I started to feel the horse’s frustration.
Seeing my lack of progression, the instructor asked me to pause momentarily and asked me a very simple but powerful question. “What is the horse doing?” Not allowing me to answer her question, she walked away.
What is the Horse Doing?
“What is the horse doing?” I asked myself. “What IS the horse doing?” I asked again. “I’ll tell you what the horse isn’t doing,” I mumbled under my breath. I guess this comment was a bit louder then intended, as I noticed the instructor looking at me and laughing.
I have taken dozens of leadership courses, embedded myself into networks and boards, listened to hundreds of books and podcasts, spoken at high school and college events and have even made myself vulnerable enough to organize a leadership event for high net worth CEO’s and Presidents, yet I found myself miserably failing a simple task, getting a horse to take one step backwards.
Then it happened, the ah-ha moment of Confident Humility, one of the leadership outcomes. The timing was perfect and the instructor knew it. Watching me struggle, calling a time-out, asking me a question and then walking away was all part of the experience. I had it all wrong, I was so focused on me and my success I lost sight of what the horse was thinking, or in this case, doing. I was irritating the horse by trying to force commands rather than working with or leading the horse.
My focus was now where it should have been, on the horse. Repeating the same techniques, with the carrot, and a bit more confidence and poise, the horse walked backwards.
On day two of the training course I once again found myself standing in 4-inch thick, perfectly combed dirt, ready to face one of my old fears. The indoor arena had a light chill and dust could be seen swirling in the air. A dozen of us, teamed up in pairs, where each ready to stand face to face with a 1100-pound animal, and the power they hold is truly extraordinary. So extraordinary that in one day, a horse named Lucky helped teach me an important lesson about leadership: Confident Humility.
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