Establishing leadership

I am about to become a supervisor again, after five years of being responsible for my work only.  In fact, I spent today interviewing candidates for one of the positions on my new team.  This change in role and responsibility has me thinking about leadership again.  How do I get the people who have been in their jobs, under a different part of the organization and a different supervisor, to accept me as their team lead.  Then I saw this and had my answer!

… leadership boils down to controlling movement and resources: The leader decides where we go, when we stop, etc.”

Okay, so that is referring to animals and not people – but is that really how leadership works, even for animals?  In humans, leadership is a complicated subject, with a lot of studies, theories, statistics, etc.  Yet, with our animals, we choose to boil our “leadership” role down to food and movement – and we justify it by citing observations of animals in the wild.  The reality is, that simplified view of leadership works for us – it’s easy to think of a dictator in every animal group who tells everyone else where to go, when they can eat, etc.  It simplifies what we see as our role, and gives us simple answers to sometimes complicated questions: Why is my horse spooky?  Why does my dog bolt through the door?  Why does my horse rush his fences?  Why does my dog chew up the furniture?

The answer to these problems may very well lie in your leadership – but you cannot find the answers to becoming a good leader in nature.  For one, the idea that the social groups of these animals (sticking to horses and dogs) have a “leader” has been debunked by scientific study for some time now.  Wolf packs may have a dominant breeding pair, but they do not necessarily dictate to movement or eating habits of the pack.  Even if they did, wild and feral dog packs operate in a completely different manner.  In fact, feral dog packs are often observed as having no cohesive structure at all, changing fluidly as the population moves around an area.

Horses in captivity may exhibit some control over food, but in the wild there is no such dominance – the food is spread out under their feet, so competition is not required.  A stallion may, at times, exhibit herding behavior – but that is generally to show another stallion the mares belong to him, not to dominate the mares themselves.  It can also be seen in driving young horses out of the herd, when it’s time for them to leave – but that is certainly not about establishing leadership, when he wants them gone.

The author of the above quote had additional words of wisdom to share.

A dog won’t find you relevant unless he perceives you as a leader.

That would imply that only the leader in the pack is relevant.  Even if I conceded that the author’s idea of leadership was accurate, is the leader really the only relevant member of a social group?  Dogs and horses live in highly complex social groups, in the wild.  Large social groups would not stay cohesive if the leader was the only “relevant” member.  In your job, is your boss the only relevant member of the team?

I prefer to think of my leadership role with my animals as being like a parent, teacher and supervisor all rolled into one.  The three are not all that different from each other: in all three you are trying to provide your followers with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in life, hopefully eventually making yourself irrelevant – at least in terms of your followers being able to function independently in their intended or chosen role.

The same magazine where I read the above quotes (Equus, October 2014) had another item on leadership.  This time it was about a woman who struggled with a horse early in her career.  After many difficulties, and facing her own pregnancy, she chose to sell the horse.  The horse had a reputation for bad behavior.  When a gentleman came to try the horse, the owner expected problems – but none occurred.  The gentleman purchased the horse, who went on to a successful career as a polo pony.  This was the woman’s conclusion:

Years and many horses later, I now understand that my gray gelding needed something I could not give him at that time.  He needed a leader, someone who would make him feel safe even in the grip of a horse-terror.

In the end, confidence is what we all want in a leader – confidence in feeling “safe” (whatever that is in the context); confidence in where we are headed; and, most importantly, confidence in our own abilities.  The trick to being a good leader is finding the path to providing that confidence in your follower(s).  Each individual may require a slightly different management style – one may be confident and skilled/talented enough to boldly proceed down the chosen path, with minimal guidance; another may require significant confidence building before you even get started.

My first job, as I start with my new team, will be to assess what each member requires in a leader – just as I would with a new horse or dog – and then try to become the leader they need.  And, as with my animals, they will teach me something about myself along the way.

Be good to your horses.


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