Leadership – empathy is key!

It has been quite a week at work!  Our director is leaving (finally!) and a new manager is stepping up as the interim leader.  We will, at last, have a leader who knows how to lead.  I have written before about my interest in leadership, and how it is not that different for horses or people.  The main difference, from my perspective, is that the leaders in the human world can be given that role with no merit whatsoever, while leaders in the animal world earn it through practice – and not by being the one to push everyone around (in spite of common mythology).  Unfortunately, we don’t “earn” our roles as “leaders” to our horses, and if we don’t take it seriously the results can be disastrous.  But the key to that leadership is the same as the key to human leadership, and in my experience that key is empathy.

It is true that there are bully leaders in the animal kingdom, but they don’t last … and sometimes it does not go well for them!  I remember listening to an ethologist describing a band monkeys they studied.  A younger, strong male came in and not only ousted a beloved old male leader (based upon the observations of his interactions with his band), but he did the older male great physical harm in the process.  The young male then assumed leadership by pushing the females around and exerting his strength over them.  Within a short time, the females had enough!  They actually banded together and attacked the young male, leaving him injured and scarred for life … and no longer the leader of the troupe!

I’ve watched my chickens, over many years, and their social structure.  We have had many “bully” roosters, who try to control the hens through strength and aggression.  Given the freedom to choose, the hens will never follow those roosters.  We have also had (including now) roosters who are solicitous to the hens.  They find a nice bug or a particularly yummy bunch of grass, and they call the hens over – either sharing the great discovery, or letting the hens have it outright.  Those roosters have always had hens that flock around them where ever they go.  Even if a stronger rooster runs them off, the hens will gradually migrate away from the bully and back to the kinder rooster.

The leader who is leaving our organization is known as a “nice” person.  I have a difficult time applying that label to her myself.  Yes, she is socially “nice” – making small talk, asking about your children (or horses, in my case).  But the reality is that it is for effect.  In my time working for her, I have known her to hide information and to lie.  The reasons have been purely selfish ones, not related to any “confidentiality” issue, and the results have been disastrous for the people involved.  As she has headed toward the door, she has carried on her displeasure with her leader in a way that is leaving us hanging and with a mess that will last for some time to come.  That is not the act of an empathetic, or “nice” person.

The new leader combines empathy with strength – a perfect combination for top level leaders.  At that level, you need to understand how change will affect your employees, but you also need to be able to make the “hard” decisions.  The new leader is holding off on sharing too much of her plans with the general staff until the current leader has made her exit.  That shows empathy.  Our organization is so broken, and the new leader has recognized that quickly – but to share her ideas for rapid change, while the new leader is still there, is the same as saying “Your leadership was terrible!”  Which it was … but there is nothing gained by rubbing her nose in it.

In my discussions with the new leader, she clearly has empathy for the staff.  This is not to say that she doesn’t recognize that some of them may not be suited for the “new world” our organization will become – but she has no intention of just cutting people loose.  She is prepared to attempt to bring everyone up to speed, and will help those who cannot make it with a transition to somewhere that is a better fit.  Empathy does not mean that you don’t do something that might be unpleasant – only that you do it with kindness and understanding.

Empathy is not easy to give or feel, but is often demanded by those who cannot find it themselves.  I was struck by the contrast in one coworker this week.  She was complaining about how we have been treated – the lack of communication, the railroading over people, the decisions made in a vacuum.  Fair enough, all of that is true and has been painful for our organization.  But, what came in nearly the same breathe shows that she cannot model the very leadership she craves.

Her horse has been kept at a friend’s house, while this coworker was recovering from surgery.  The horse was supposed to come home a couple of weeks ago, but the friend was unable to get the horse to go into the trailer.  This horse has been trailered maybe a half-dozen times in his decade of life.  The last time his owner trailered him, she got into an accident and he ended up on the floor of the trailer, under another horse.  When he was trailered to the friend’s place, they had to work to get him in the trailer – and he was on the floor when she arrived.  So, I am not surprised that he does not want to get back into the small black box.  A situation where that empathy my coworker craves is needed in loads!  But, her parting words to me were: “I’m taking the chain and the whip and that s– of a b—- is getting in that damned trailer!”  That is bullying, not leadership!

You have to be the leader that you want for yourself.  Not everyone has the ability to lead others – it takes a lot of qualities besides empathy that some people just don’t have.  My organization is filled with people in leadership positions that cannot make decisions, or take actions.  But, as our new leader said, you have to lead not only downward, but laterally and upward.  And, if you cannot show empathy for others, you will not only be a bad leader, but you will likely get bad leadership.  My coworker will never be able to count on her horse in a crunch, because he cannot count on her.  My life experience has proven that to me – both with people and with horses!

Be good leaders for your horses!


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