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Leadership at a Gallop – Equine-Assisted Reflection and Learning

I didn’t wear a helmet, riding boots or a crop when I spent three hours last Sunday morning with Mr. Bean and Frederica- two former polo ponies living on a farm in Bavois, Switzerland. That’s because I didn’t ride them – I spent my time leading them around a chilly arena, slaloming cones and over low barriers (without a rope!), or at least trying to.
This was during one of Sarah Krasker’s equine-assisted learning workshops where she provides individuals ( coming in teams or alone) an opportunity to explore their leadership abilities through experiential learning. You bring your non-verbal communication skills, energy and purpose to bear with giant animals who don’t get office politics or do something because it’s a nice thing to do. If the horse can’t understand your direction, is getting mixed signals, or doesn’t trust you it will simply abandon you for a good, hard, longing look at the rest of the herd in the field out the window.
We were three people, two horses and trainer Sarah for the morning. All of us had picked different aspects of leadership to explore. In our three hours, we worked with the horses twice with reflection and debriefing after each session.
Our goal in the barn arena was simply to get the horse to follow us on its own accord. This seemed unlikely (why should they?) but we were assured if we were giving off the right energy (Sarah called it an “energy bubble”) and signals and made it seem more interesting than anything else going on at the time for the horse it would happen. For that we needed to communicate direction, intention and passion for the task ( walking around the ring or weaving through the cones). Horses being herd animals, we were explained, like to follow a trusted leader. Mustering these forces within you would lead to a satisfying picture of a horse following you around. However, hesitation, a dip in conviction or attention or energy, alternatively means that the horse will just stop in its tracks and look at you patiently, stock still, 900 pounds of immobile weight, with those big beautiful brown eyes. No amount of pushing or cajoling at this stage would get it to move another step.
It took me the first round to connect with the horse and understand more of how strong you have to be to get the horse to follow you. Not muscle strong though; it takes concentrated, ongoing focused energy and mental engagement to get the horse to start and keep moving. My first time I only got a few steps that initially heartened me but quickly showed that the window was more interesting than anything I was offering at the moment.
But the second time, with resolve, a vision in mind about what task completion looked like, a firm but friendly voice and not taking no for an answer, I blocked my energy, gave instructions and turned my back and walked around the ring a couple of times with Frederica following along behind me. Granted, I did start with the rope for the first few steps, but then we unclipped the rope and (to my amazement, although I didn’t let on of course) she still followed me around the ring for a couple of tours. The second time I needed to quality control the slalom by slowing down a little and insisting a little more firmly that she go around all the cones, and she did! (I must confess, at first I thought these just might be very well-trained horses that know their trail and would do it by themselves, but on many occasions, even with the rope, if the leader hesitated or lost their conviction the horse would simply and quite abruptly stop in its tracks. Now that’s feedback!)
It was a thought-provoking morning in the barn and it got me thinking about how I communicate vision, the responsibility for safety that leadership brings (task based as well as emotional), how to make sure that what you are asking, which is out of the ordinary – not business as usual,  is more interesting than the familiar other horses or the window. Leadership most often means taking people along to a new place, a new situation, or a new practice.

Working with the horses and Sarah this way provides a great opportunity to get outside the four walls of the office and separate yourself from the day to day. This can give invaluable time for reflection that the barrage of emails and meetings doesn’t always provide for, and a useful experiential learning moment that can move your thinking ( be it at a trot, canter, or run) about your own leadership role while enjoying the warm hay breath of the horses.

(Trainer Sarah Trasker with Mr. Bean)
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I’m the Facilitator

We are currently running a Facilitation learning programme with a large organization here in Geneva that is focused not so much on tools and techniques, but more on the design of facilitated learning processes, and what it means to be the person leading them. Overall we are working to help people use facilitation in a very nuanced, thoughtful way rather than as a blunt instrument.

We have a session that is focused on ourselves as facilitators and for that we use any and all information that people have generated over the years (their choice) using diagnostic tools such as MBTI, Strengthsfinder, FIRO-B, etc. They can also talk to friends and family to get some inputs. The objective is to reflect on how our behavioural preferences might manifest themselves in our facilitation and group process leadership work.

It has been a very interesting thought exercise to try to identify times when our individual behavioural preferences might really help our processes, or might get in the way. Just asking the question – How might my behavioural preferences manifest themselves in my facilitation work – is an intervention in itself as it is something most of us don’t consider or consider very often.

We both give examples of where we see our own preferences at work, and take the exercise one step further to talk about how, once we are aware of them, we manage these. We are both very different facilitators, Lizzie and I, and it is interesting to see what we both actively do to make sure that the best outcome is achieved.

I grappled with one of my behavioural preferences recently during a large group facilitation exercise in Mali. My FIRO-B results in inclusion are rather high (expressed and wanted). This is a good thing, of course, when it comes to working successfully with groups, and at the same time it gives me a challenge when ownership by the group is one of the soft outcomes desired of a facilitated process. This might be the case for a network building meeting, one generating an action plan or campaign, or a Youth Call to Action – as was the case in the Mali event.

For any facilitator high in inclusion, turning over the process, standing back and letting the group take over takes deliberate thought and action and can really work against that behavioural preference to be in the middle of everything until the very end. But that ownership outcome demands it. In Mali, at the end of our process, that hand over needed to occur and did occur, but it was a little messy and felt for some as though the process was listing to starboard. As easy as it would have been for me to step in (my inclusion was ready to jump), I didn’t. I was present, I helped from the floor, I gave advice when needed, but the group representatives and the process we had set up took over, and they finished the work, and could revel in their success in doing it themselves.

That was hard for me personally, but very good for the process.  Lots of additional relationship building, deeper perspective sharing, and considered decision-making might have been lost if I had run that process myself right to the very end. And these outcomes can be used as social capital when this group meets again.

We use other examples of how our behaviour preferences map over to our facilitation work, and we talk about what we do to manage these, whether it is to design in specific things (like a handover point), to working with a co-facilitator that balances them out, to contracting differently with the group. We all have preferences that both make us good at being facilitators and that also might get in the way. Being mindful of these, and frequently asking the question – How might my behavioural preferences be showing up in my facilitation work? – is a good way to constantly be learning when I’m the Facilitator.

Related blog posts:
What Did You Say? Building a group’s capacity to deal with its own issues
A sampling of good intervention statements to use when you are trying to help a group work through its issues, take control of the process and lead its own development.

You Have the Right to Remain Silent
Reflections on dealing with a group that has different inclusion needs – just because someone is not talking doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she is not engaged. Watch jumping up that Ladder of Inference!

Understanding What We are Bringing to the Party: Group Process Consultation Resources
A list of tools and resources that facilitators and Group Process Consultation practitioners can use to explore their own impacts on a group.

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Leadership: Looking Past the Front Row

Many years ago a friend, a systems dynamicist, told me a story about the perils of only looking at the front row when you’re speaking in an auditorium or leading a group on stage.

He told me that you can easily create a positive feedback loop for yourself, that is, a cause and effect situation that continually reinforces itself, until you find yourself far from your original track.

For example, he noticed that when he gave speeches he got the most positive feedback from the front rows of the auditorium. These people would nod, laugh at his jokes, give him all kinds of active listening prompts, and the more he responded to them, the more they loved it, and the more positive feedback they gave.

However, who sits in the front row? Not only people who can’t see from the back. But people who already are keen, are followers or devotees, people who want and are getting your quality attention, who may even want to be close to you potentially for other reasons – maybe status seekers, your friends, and potentially people who care enough about you not to doubt, question your logic or challenge you. So, in your narrative, they go wherever you take them, and you take them wherever you go. You don’t have to take them very far, they are fans, they agree with you, they are happy with what you are giving them. That is your front row.

There are obvious perils to depending on your front row for real feedback, for insight into other options and directions, and for the personal growth and development that comes from having your ideas and world view challenged (even gently). It is the people in the middle and even in the back, the hecklers and the still-to-be-convinced types, who can do that. They might be sitting back there completely disconnected from what you are saying or worse misunderstanding it, but you don’t notice, you are focused on communicating to your front row because they are making you feel good about your message – your vision, your strategy, your stories, your best jokes.

As a leader, at any level, how can you make sure that you look past your front row (or how can you get the people in the middle or the back to feel comfortable enough to move up there), so that you can get genuine feedback on what you are saying and the decisions you are taking, so you can course correct if need be before you so solidly believe it yourself (these wonderful friendly people just in front of me believe it too so it must be true)? How can you create an environment for yourself where you encourage people to share their opinions even though they may be different than your own (and potentially those of your entire front row). They might give you something very useful that will make you an even better speaker and leader. And, after all, they’re quite important, since they make up most of the audience.

The Leadership Quality Called Courage

In times of extreme change, be they ecological or financial, leadership is a focus of deep discussion and heightened observation, and the source ultimately of trust in decisions and hope in the future.

Courage is widely accepted as one important leadership quality. Let’s say that courage is a good thing, we want to see even more courage, and that we want to help build capacity to be courageous. If you were a leadership developer, what might be some of the ways that you could do that?

Courage, according to the inimitable Wikipedia, is also known as bravery, will, intrepidity, and fortitude. It is the ability to confront fear, pain, risk/danger, uncertainty or intimidation. “Physical courage” is courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, or threat of death, while “moral courage” is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement. Hmmm…

One way to foster courageous behaviour would certainly be to model it. Another way would be to practice noticing it, naming it, and creating conversations around it. Discussions might explore what makes an act courageous, what conditions are needed for people to express their courage, how courage might be seen from different perspectives (the behaviour might not even seem like courage, but contradictorily the lack of courage to some).

Times of change produce opportunities for people and institutions to be courageous. You see it everywhere. It takes courage to make hard decisions that are needed but might be unpopular, and have unforeseen consequences at the time of taking them. And courage is complex to label, often tangled up as it is in the diversity of personal interpretations, which come from the diversity of personal impacts of the outcomes. I guess courage in itself is about stepping out of comfort zones, to act to change a situation which is not working for you and your constituency (which could be your family, team, community or organization.) And even these constituencies might not agree. It is an interesting time to have a conversation about courage, what it looks like, and who gets to decide what is courageous or not. It’s probably not always so clear.

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The Sound of One Hand Clapping

At the end of a team building module, one of several in a leadership training course I used to give, we would often play a quick game called, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping”. You tell people that you will count to three and say “GO” and then they all should clap at the same time, in unison, so that everyone clapping together sounds like one hand clapping. You remind them that you will say “1, 2, 3, GO” and then they should clap. Then you proceed to say “1, 2, 3” and then you clap yourself. Then you say “GO”. Inevitably, people will clap when you clap, and not when you say “GO”. A couple of people always manage to wait for the GO word, but for the most part, people will follow your actions rather than your words. The message is that actions speak louder than words. They do and we all know it.

We use that game at the end of workshops because we want people to go home and, rather than tell everyone what they did, demostrate it through their actions. If it is leadership, then let’s see it. Talking about leadership is not enough. Great leaders can make great speeches, but great speeches don’t necessarily mean great leaders. When leadership is demonstrated, then we all clap!

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Facilitator for Today: Thought Leader for Tomorrow?

In our organizations, who are the people igniting the passions of those around them? Who mobilizes the talents of the people they work with and builds collective as well as individual strength of others? Who are the ‘Thought Leaders’? And how are they leading thought? (See Robin Ryde’s short video which inspired this post.)

In the Learning and Leadership unit, we have been embracing invitations to design and facilitate workshops to help ‘lead’ thinking (as described in our earlier blog post: “Building Capacity in Systems Thinking: Want More Amplification? Don’t Call it Training”, August 14). We engineer experiences aiming to facilitate people thinking and conversing effectively and efficiently, purposefully mobilizing talents and building strengths. As today’s facilitators, are we the ‘Thought Leaders’ for tomorrow? And if we are, will this loaded label bring us greater success?

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Say It With Flowers

There are many ways to say “No”, some are distinctly better than others. Yesterday a mini experiment in saying “No” happened in our office. I wrote an email query (not the first time) which included a budget request and sent it to two senior managers in the institution. It was something I had been banging on about for months and clearly was beginning to be an issue that needed resolution. A short meeting had been held the previous day on the topic, so I was eager for the answer. Within 30 minutes of my message, both managers wrote me back. Both effectively saying “No”, but what a difference in approach, delivery, and how it made me feel afterwards.

One manager wrote me a one liner asking if he could talk to me about this. Then within 30 min he was standing in my office. We sat down, chatted for a minute and then he brought up the issue. He listened to me first, then he told me about the process and rationale for the decision. He gave me an example of how another staff member in my similar situation had found a solution and was working it out. He appealed to my sense of fairness (as in this case the limited budget I had requested was going to those who had no other options for participation without this means). He smiled, he asked if I understood, and in the end I felt a bit guilty about my initial request, was willing to give it up. I thanked him for his time and thoughtful explanation; I practically thanked him for his “No”. At the end of our 7 minute conversation I was more knowledgable about the process, I understood his challenges in decision-making and his rationale.

The other “No” response could not have been more different. The second manager wrote me an email and pasted in the text from the minutes regarding the decision that was taken in the meeting. It also refered to a memo from last January (which has not been spoken of again until recently). It had no rationale, was unapologetic, and straightforward in saying “No”. It ended with saying, effectively, the rules say you will not do this. All this in 4 lines of an email. Wow, the feeling of this “No” response was dramatically different. I made me feel argumentative; I wanted to take the time to dig out that January memo, follow all the discussions and find evidence of miscommunication, etc. write back a retort, stir up a fuss, stand on principle, etc. etc. Effectively, waste a lot of time (mine and potentially this manager’s) contesting a decision that only moments before I was completely fine with.

The nice approach won out. I will drop this now, but it is an interesting lesson in how to artfully say “No”. And also about time -short term time investment for long term time savings (in systems akin to the “Worse Before Better” archetype). Both managers are incredibly busy. However, taking 10 minutes to come see me saved this first manager (and me) potentially much more effort dealing with my reaction to this decision over time, and potential spin off reactions from bad feelings. Ironically, this short exchange with the first manager to tell me “No” probably even improved our relationship. Imagine being able to use a bad news situation to make interactions better overall – artful people management. I am not sure this would be the case with the second approach.

“We Deserve the Leaders We Get”

I have spent the last two days with the British Council team who is working to roll out an innovative leadership programme called InterAction. The programme started in Africa and has run for four years and trained over 1000 African leaders, and 40 African facilitators. I was very happy to have been a part of the original design team and work through the first year of the unique leadership programme with the African facilitation team. The programme is starting to scale up has just started in Pakistan and this meeting was to discuss a global programme.

Yesterday we had a discussion about the focus of the programme – one person asked, “What difference can you make if you just focus on personal development?” We had a passionate response from the Ethiopian facilitators, Selome Tadesse, who said, “We get the leaders we deserve. Our leaders do not fall down from Mars or Venus at 45 years old and are bad people. They grow up in our villages, and communities, they go to our schools and they belong to our families. ” Personal leadership development that starts with community level leaders, people with local or neighbourhood spheres of influence, or young people in institutions, rather than the elected officials or heads of organizations and programmes might take longer, but will certainly help guarantee that the leaders we get in the future are the leaders we both want and deserve.

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What Can a Trader Learn from a Tribesman?

This is the new corporate ad that our organization has developed – I was so excited to see that out of the 8 words chosen so carefully to profile our organization, “Learning” was one! The tagline at the bottom is also interesting: “Bringing experts together to help solve our most pressing sustainable development challenges”.

Earlier this week we had a programme planning session in which we explored our theory of change, visioned our unit in 5 years, and discussed the needs that we saw for learning and leadership within our organization, the greater union of partners and members, and externally. At the end of the day, we worked very hard to try to draw together the many strands of thoughts, ideas and goals, and we came up with the simple (in words if not in action) phrase that will help give our work direction: “Learning – Leading – Convening” (perhaps drawn as a feedback loop diagram). And that was before we saw the corporate ad…

What do you think? Too simple? Too narrow? How do you think learning and leadership go together? We would love to have your feedback!

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Learning at All Levels: Boss Swap

I heard a great idea yesterday from the founder/owner of an innovative Dutch technology firm. He wanted to create an experiential learning opportunity for himself, the head of the business for nearly 20 years, so he organized a “Boss swap” with a friend in another company. For three days, he swapped roles with another CEO from a similar-sized, but non-competing business, to see what he could learn.

He said that he found the experience fascinating. Indeed, he got some new management ideas that he could effectively apply in his own workplace. And, by observing with a more dispassionate view on structures, roles and work flows, he found that when he returned he was able to look more objectively at his own business.

One of the most valuable parts of this experience he said were the discussions with his swap partner afterwards. Both in similar roles, they were able to help each other explore internal decisions and options for change with much more background that they could ever shared over (many) dinner conversations, creating a peer-learning opportunity that bordered on coaching that was equally valuable to both of them. He also said that, following his experience, he organized similar swaps for other levels of management in different offices, and that the Dutch media had been so interested in the exercise that they had covered it in the news (no doubt an added benefit.)

This strikes me as an excellent informal learning exchange for those at different management levels in our institution (even between our HQ and regional/national offices). It would give managers the opportunity to think differently about their own work, build relationships among senior staff (and with other workers), and develop a system of peer-support at the management level. It would also give people more information and experience with one another’s programmes and might help identify practical ways to collaborate that were not obvious before.

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Shedding Light On Our Sundials

What are your talents and your key strengths? And what are you doing to maximize these day-to-day?

I recently received a fascinating book for my birthday, written by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton: Now, Discover Your Strengths. Refreshingly, this book sets out to dispel the “pervasive myth” that excellent performers must be well-rounded. It asserts instead that “you will only excel by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses.”

To what extent are we maximizing our strengths, versus taking the traditional ‘problem-solving’ approach and expending our energies on fixing our weaknesses?

“Benjamin Franklin called wasted strengths “Sundials in the Shade”. Too many organizations, teams and individuals unknowingly hide their sundials in the shade,” write Buckingham and Clifton. Their book seeks to help us shed light on our “sundials”, for “the real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn’t have enough strengths, it’s that we fail to use the ones we have.” Shedding some light on our sundials, we can then make sure they are aligned (parallel with the earth’s axis) and angled (depending on their latitude) for consistent, near-perfect performance.

What we can do to make sure we shed light on our “sundials”, building on our talents and maximizing our strengths? How can we work individually, in our teams and throughout our organization to identify and describe our talents? – For, if Buckingham and Clifton are right (and I like to believe that they are) we can then work together to find ways to maximize our strengths and really excel.

In the next week or so, we’re going to be following some of the authors’ advice and testing their tools. I’m very keen to see what they have to offer, and hope to be soon turning my talents into greater strengths. I’ll also be speaking with Gillian about her reflections on the work of these authors… after all, she was the one who started me on this path having looked into her own strengths with them some years ago. I have a sneaking suspicion she may have the “maximizer” talent 🙂

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We Don’t Use the “L” Word…….Enough

Did you know that the Earth Charter, a soft law instrument that is gradually becoming “harder”, has the word Love in it? One of the principles of the Earth Charter is to “Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion and love.”

Leadership development practitioners, such as those at the Teleos Leadership Institute are increasingly talking about “Whole Leaders” and how to build capacities in our development leaders which incorporate mind, heart, body and spirit. Their new book Resonant Leaders explores “renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope and compassion.”

This weekend I am at a steering committee meeting for a network of sustainability scientists and leaders that I have the pleasure to attend each year in December, in Walliselen, Switzerland. In our very first conversation this morning we talked about what makes this particular network of sustainability leaders, which has been active for 25 years, so successful. Members agreed that when this community meets, it becomes one of the few environments – safe creative spaces- where you can integrate your intellectual work and “love”. In the conversations of this group, people can talk in the same sentences about global change, development trends and dynamics and care, concern and love for society, the environment, their friends and themselves.

The difference? They do not feel that this type of holistic conversation diminishes the intellectual rigor of their points. On the contrary. It is felt to be more real, more accurate and more representative of the real world, than the potentially one-sided conversations happening in science-based bodies now. Think about it, when was the last time you used the “L” word in one of your workplace conversations?