You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Neither can you force people to trust or follow you – unless you have the leadership skills to convince them otherwise.
Whether it’s leading horses or people, the skills required may actually be the same – and the leadership lessons that we learn from working with animals might be directly applicable to other areas of life as well.
Learning leadership skills might even have benefits in common with therapeutic interventions – there’s a growing body of research that shows interaction with animals can have therapeutic benefits, including improved trust, communication, and assertiveness.
In this article, we’ll look at how experiences we have from working with animals can teach us valuable lessons in leadership.
From feeding a goldfish to walking a dog, taking care of pets can teach us responsibility from an early age. Even on the days when we don’t feel like it, our animals must be fed, watered and cared for, and some pets – like horses – may require significantly more care, such as grooming and exercise.
It doesn’t matter if you’re having a bad day or if the rain is pouring down – you still have to go to the barn to toss hay and muck out the stable. By caring for animals day after day, we learn the valuable life skill of taking responsibility.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
They say that a stubborn horse walks behind you, an impatient horse walks in front of you, but a noble companion walks beside you. This strong, beneficial relationship between a human and animal exists through a lot of mutual trust – and a big part of that is that the horse must trust you to lead by looking to your example.
Animals, particularly horses, are extremely responsive to non-verbal communication such as touch, body language and tone instead of words. All of these can be used to show the horse that you are relaxed and focused, and this gives the horse confidence as well. When working with animals, your actions really do speak louder than words – a skill that applies to human relationships and interactions, as well.
Give Credit Where It’s Due
We know that positive reinforcement is an effective training method for dogs and other animals, as dogs repeat behaviours that are rewarding. But rewards can be much more than treats – they could be praise, toys, or a chance to play a game. Positive reinforcement can come in the form of anything your animal loves. However, it is important that the positive reinforcement comes at the right time, for the right reason and at the right frequency to ensure that it’s clear what behaviour is being rewarded.
It’s important to give credit where credit is due – whether praising a dog for learning to sit or rewarding people for a job well done. Misallocation of credit in the workplace can result in stifled collaboration, reduced innovation and limited growth. And, once again, it’s important that people get credit at the right time, for the right reasons, and with enough frequency to encourage them to focus on the positives and avoid non-constructive blaming.
Respect Must Be Earned
Animals that live in groups can display complex social behaviours. For example, wolves and horses both often exhibit social hierarchies where respect is earned by dominance, wisdom or age. Past notions of the alpha wolf have been challenged by recent studies that indicate wolf packs have complicated social structures, influenced by factors such as parental relationships and specific situations.
Horses also have complex social behaviours; as prey animals and natural followers, they look for good leaders who can tell them when it’s safe to be calm and when they should be alert and/or flee from danger. Through methods like natural horsemanship, humans can work to be seen as the horse’s leader, by trying to think like the horse does, being responsive to the horse’s behaviour and cues, and being assertive rather than aggressive.
Whether it’s wolves, horses, or people, good leaders continually demonstrate strong leadership, earn respect and take care of those lower in the hierarchy.
Learning Should Be Fun
Animals love to play, whether it’s puppies play fighting, ravens snowboarding or gulls playing catch with clams. Scientists have long labelled these behaviours as “play” because they don’t seem to serve any obvious purpose, but that might not be totally correct. According to psychologist Marc Bekoff, many of the actions performed during play may also be used in other contexts, such as dominance or predatory encounters. This means that a lot of animal play might actually be practice for important interactions.
Animals are clearly learning during play, showing that one of the best ways to learn is to have fun with it. We can apply this lesson to leadership by embracing a growth mindset and recognizing that learning should be fun. There’s always more to learn, and leaders who embrace lifelong learning are better able to stay at the forefront of innovation and build strong teams. They’re also more resilient when it comes to dealing with change, solving problems and reaching goals.
Bring Your Best Every Day
Horses, dogs and other animals regularly give 100 per cent in doing what’s required of them – whether that’s jumping around a course or chasing after a ball.
Strong leaders should take note and practice ways to bring their best every day as well. For example, performing rituals can increase preparation, confidence and sense of control. Rituals that increase mindfulness can be particularly impactful, and may even improve outcomes.
Know When To Take Time for Self-Care
Bringing your best every day is important – but if you try to do it long-term, without taking care of yourself, it can lead to burnout. Hard work and dedication are important leadership qualities, but must be accompanied by leaders taking time for self-care. Not only is practicing self-care important for leaders themselves, but how leaders demonstrate the value of self-care can trickle down to employees and impact their well-being.
Animals might just be the masters of demonstrating self-care, whether it’s a cat disappearing into an empty room for some alone time or a horse communicating to its rider that it needs a break (sometimes by unseating them!). We try to care for our animals so that their well-being is prioritized, and effective leaders should care for themselves in the same way.
Who doesn’t love a dog greeting them with a wagging tail, or a horse happily walking up to you in the field? Dogs are always curious to meet everyone and make new friends, and because of this attitude, they often do.
Leaders should try to embrace this mindset as well. There’s value to social behaviours like being personable, getting to know everyone on your team and networking as a leader. When leaders are able to connect with everyone on their team, they’re much better able to communicate with them, which is essential to be effective as a leader.
Dogs, cats and horses are constantly exploring their world and being present in the moment. Curiosity is the bedrock of learning, and great leaders are always learning, exploring and finding ways to be innovative.
Whether we’re training a horse to ride under saddle or teaching a dog a new trick, it’s clear that the animals aren’t the only ones learning. From working with animals, we can learn a lot about leadership in all areas of life.