Unlocking Leadership

lead a horseDust blows across the corral. We toe the dirt.

Creative, even scary leadership development activities from the past float through my mind: blister-producing ropes exercise; speed-prep speech giving; psychometric leadership styles assessments; several 360s; cabaret solo-singing.

Now, at a ranch outside San Francisco, I’m about to lead a horse.

When psychologist Kurt Lewin released his groundbreaking research on leadership styles in 1939, I doubt he anticipated how leadership vernacular, assessments, workshops, and programs would proliferate. Catchy new labels for leadership styles emerge frequently and if we strip away the buzzwords, we find elements of the three core styles Lewin identified: Autocratic, Democratic, and Laissez-Faire.

Perspiration trickles down my back as the timed “Lead a Horse” exercise begins. One classmate decides she’s too terrified of horses to participate and leaves the arena.

Another colleague pats and pets his horse, talks quietly, pulls on the reins, and nothing happens.  Flirtatious, the horse flips its mane as if to say, “come on, impress me big boy.” He belly-bumps and begs. The lady horse won’t budge.

Colleague number three steps up, cajoles and tugs on the reins. The horse jerks forward one step and back-peddles three, putting its nose in the grass, whinnying good naturedly. This Lead a Horse exercise is more difficult than I imagined.

I’m pretty sure I have dirt caught in my teeth.

It’s my turn. I tell my horse how successful we’re going to be together while petting and back patting her and off we go. My horse breaks into a trot to keep up with me. I pick up the pace. The horse gallops. Once in a while, the reins go taut and I holler over my shoulder, encouraging my horse to come on—round we go again.

We finish to applause and mutual sweat. I have an overwhelming urge to jump in the water trough beside my guzzling, panting horse. I think self-congratulatory thoughts, “I’m a bit of a leadership rock star, aren’t I? A born leader.” Ugh, I’m exhausted and my horse might be too.

Ed, the retired Navy Admiral, is next. He’ a former top-gun fighter pilot. Ed stands, hand over the back of the horse, whispering. In the last few seconds of Ed’s turn he starts walking—and the horse does, right alongside him—like a partner. No reins, no lead rope. I knew in that moment, the horse would follow Ed into battle, that horse trusted Ed to lead.

As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make her drink.” After many leadership style assessments and activities, this one exercise produced one of the greatest ah-ha moment about how I led, how I want to lead, and how I really need to change.

3 Es To Unlock Your Leadership Style

Make space for three Es: Examine, Experiment and Enjoy.

Examine other leaders’ styles every chance you get. Go outside your usual sphere. Ed in action removed some of my blinders. I realized how much I emulated leaders I’d been close to in my working life—even when I swore I’d do things differently. Ed reminded me of other possibilities by demonstrating a different leadership style and the results it achieved.

Experiment to achieve leadership style ah-has. Beyond conventional literature, assessments and programs, experiment outside your comfort zone of leadership styles. I guarantee that there’s an experience out there that will bring you to new revelations. Keep experimenting. You’re worth it!

Enjoy the leadership journey. This story is a bit embarrassing. The sweat, the lack of focus, the mind-wandering to dirt stuck in my teeth, and my faux leadership rock stardom sensation. Leadership style assessments—strength-based or not—can sometimes become serious boxes to fit ourselves in, heavy burdens to bear when leading is weighty enough. If you haven’t laughed at yourself lately, start noting one thing each week that you thought, said or did that is pretty darned funny. Be vulnerable, share that story with others and you’ll enjoy your leadership journey more, guaranteed.

Encore post. 3Plus International published this post on July 31, 2014 as part of their eGazine’s Conversations About Leadership. 

Deep gratitude out to the extraordinary Ret. Admiral Ed Allen, Executive Success Group in Dallas, TX. Ed and Donna Allen coach great leaders working in Fortune 100 companies.

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